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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