Mississippi Feature

Economics

Do you live near a port of some kind, a harbor, an airport? Do you like to swim? Do you drink water? Do you eat food? Do you use electricity? Do you have, or want to have, a job? Then you should know how much you depend on the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River is not only a great place to relax, but it is also a working river. We drink water from it, the river waters our crops, we play in it, we play on it, we sing about it, we transport goods and material on it. The Mississippi River may be the hardest working river in the world. The Thames in England used to be used for commerce, but is not any longer. The Volga in Russia still is used as major commercial transportation. The Mississippi is used for just about every purpose you can use a river for. One Mississippi River worker has gone so far as to say that if the river's lock and dam system ran into major problems, it would cripple the American economy.

We use coal in many of our power plants to generate the electricity that we use to power so many things. Most of the nation's coal is moved by barge on our rivers. The Upper Mississippi River moves an average of 125 million tons of commodities per year. Of that huge amount, 55 million tons are farm products, 24 million tons are coal, and 21 million tons are non-metallic minerals.

Commercial navigation of the Upper Mississippi generates about one billion dollars every year, and employs around 6300 people. Along the Upper Mississippi River corridor are 52,600 farms, generating five billion dollar a year, and employing 94,000 people. Commercial harvest of natural resources, like fishing and sand and gravel extraction, bring in three to nine million dollars a year, and employ 1200 to 4000 people a year. This is not to mention the foreign countries who import Midwestern grain that would have a lot of trouble if they could not load their cargo at New Orleans.

All this activity comes at a cost, though. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the Mississippi River is in grave ecological danger. There has been a dramatic loss of biodiversity in and along the river. Habitat loss endangers the wildlife that depend on the river, and the surrounding wetlands, for food and shelter. Fish and shellfish have been discovered to contain high levels of pollutants and contaminants.

The Army Corps of Engineers built the lock and dam system that makes the river a working river. Now, the corps is currently conducting a study "to investigate the feasibility of navigation improvements on these river systems for the planning period of years 2000 to 2050." It's a complex problem, and a complex study. It will involve engineers, business people, environmentalists, farmers, and citizens concerned about the river. When the study concludes, the Corps will have to create a plan for river improvements, and that plan will have an impact on everyone who is affected by the river. And that includes just about everyone. Dan McGinnis, head of the Audubon Society's Upper Mississippi River Campaign puts it this way, "Unless we increase our focus protecting the fish and wildlife habitat we have left, and expand and intensify our efforts to restore habitat that has been lost, the river will cease to be a multi-purpose resource. It could end up being a mighty fine navigation system, but only a small remnant of a once thriving and productive ecosystem. It will cease being a river that works (biologically) and become only a working river (for commercial and big boat traffic)." .

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Center for Global Environmental Education
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