How healthy is the Upper Mississippi River? While states adjacent to the river monitor the waters that drain to it, there has not been a coordinated effort to monitor the country’s largest river by the 10 states that border it. As a result, it’s been difficult to get a clear picture of the overall health of the river and to address larger challenges, such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico around the river’s outfall.
That’s why the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association (UMRBA) worked with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri to develop a monitoring and assessment approach to better gauge the condition of the large river.
Each of the states along the Mississippi River has its own approach to monitoring water quality. They have established water quality standards, monitoring techniques, and sampling practices that fulfill federal requirements, but don’t necessarily align easily with other states’ programs.
“Every state is measuring water quality, but they are working with different ‘rulers’,” said Pam Anderson, manager of the MPCA Surface Water Monitoring Section.
For instance, one state may say a stretch of the river has excess phosphorus in the water, but its neighboring state has set a higher threshold, and the same water meets its standard for phosphorus. In addition, the two states may have measured for phosphorus with different tools or sampling practices. For example, one state sampled in the fast flowing main stem of the river, while the other measured in the river’s side channels, which can produce very different results. One monitoring program may monitor after rain events, while another takes a sample each week. Some states may not have developed tools specifically for monitoring large rivers.
These different approaches have prevented river states from being able to gauge the overall health of the Mississippi River and see clearly where there is the greatest need for restoration and protection efforts. UMRBA worked with the five Upper Mississippi states to develop a monitoring strategy to target those efforts and to:
- Address information gaps
- Better identify water quality problems and what is causing them
- Track changes in water quality
Minnesota and Wisconsin undertook a pilot project of the UMRBA monitoring plan to test its feasibility and effectiveness. The two states worked together to assess plant health, condition of fish and bugs, suitability of fish for consumption, and the river’s suitability for recreation. The water was sampled for bacteria, metals, and nutrients. Several agencies collaborated on the study:
- Minnesota agencies studied the river from the Twin Cities to the confluence with the Chippewa River, just south of Lake Pepin.
- Wisconsin covered the stretch south to the confluence with the Root River.
- The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources studied vegetation.
- Minnesota's Metropolitan Council collected water quality at fixed locations along the reach.
The researchers found the Upper Mississippi River to be in good or fair condition for most parameters, though vegetation was in poor condition in the stretch from the Twin Cities to the confluence with the St. Croix River, which also had excess sediment clouding the water.
UMRBA considers the pilot project a success; the voluntary and collaborative model is achievable. In 2020, work will continue on monitoring the river with Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri collaborating to complete work in the southern portion of the Upper Mississippi River.
For more details of the pilot study, visit the UMRBA water quality web page and scroll down to Recent Products and Publications.