River of Renewal: A Vision for Reconnecting Communities to a Living Upper Mississippi River

Introduction

The Upper Mississippi is an extraordinary river. From the moment it trickles out of Minnesota’s Lake Itasca, the Mississippi River shapes the lives of the communities along its banks. As the Mississippi courses through the nation’s heartland, it winds through hundreds of communities and thousands of years of human history.

Millions make their homes along the river’s shores, and millions more use the waterway every year for industry, recreation, to move goods, supply water, transport wastewater, and generate power.

The river is also home to an abundance of wildlife, including: 326 species of birds and fully 40 percent of all North American waterfowl; 260 species of fish; 37 species of freshwater mussels; 45 amphibian and reptile species; and 50 mammal species.

The Upper Mississippi’s ecosystem is a vibrant mosaic of many habitats. The diversity of these habitats is unparalleled – including thousands of wetlands, side channels, backwaters, prairies, and forests. Each of these habitats serves a different purpose, yet they all are interconnected and contribute to the overall health of the river. The river ecosystem acts as the essential connector between large conservation areas in an otherwise highly-fragmented Upper Midwest landscape. Migrating birds and fish are especially dependent on the river’s connectivity.

The natural resources of the Upper Mississippi support thriving local economies. More than 12 million people annually recreate on or along the Mississippi River – four times more than visit Yellowstone National Park – spending $1.2 billion and supporting 18,000 jobs in riverside communities. A large portion of this economic activity depends on the natural ecosystem that is associated with hunting, fishing, and bird watching. Millions of people hunt waterfowl and watch birds along the Mississippi, spending nearly $400 million each year on equipment and travel-related expenses in riverside communities. Wildlife watching alone in Midwestern states generates nearly $6 billion in
annual spending, supporting more than 150,000 jobs.

But, for the river to continue to be an asset to communities, all of the river’s “parts” must be in working order. The river ecosystem must be intact and healthy. And each habitat type has a valuable role to play. Wetlands are important because they not only store and slowly release flood waters and help maintain water quality, they also provide homes and breeding areas for waterfowl and other wildlife. Upland prairies and flood-plain forests help control the amount of runoff that enters a river. They also provide important habitat for a diverse array of wildlife. Tributaries are essential to the survival of many fish species-species that require areas of slower water velocity and fewer predators. Backwaters also provide diverse habitats and breeding areas for wildlife away from the river’s main channel.

As significant as each of these habitats are to the Upper Mississippi ecosystem and economies, we are losing them at an alarming rate. For over 200 years, human pressures have been building up to push the river’s natural systems to the breaking point. Agriculture and urbanization have eliminated habitat and have increased the rate of runoff and the amount of pollutants in the river. Erosion has led to greater sedimentation, filling in Upper Mississippi River backwaters and wetlands with silt.

This continued habitat loss threatens both the ecological and economic value of the Upper Mississippi region. It is a sobering picture, and one that could get worse if communities do not start to aggressively protect and restore these vital pieces of the river ecosystem.

The good news is that even a single community effort can have an impact.

Today, communities across the country are turning back to their rivers, restoring habitat and revitalizing downtown riverfronts. There are a number of benefits for a community that takes on a restoration project. The most obvious are the ecological benefits-cleaner water and more abundant fish, birds and wildlife. But there are other benefits, too. Restoring a natural area or revitalizing a long-neglected riverfront can give a remarkable boost to a town’s quality of life. A restoration project can renew civic pride as people feel reconnected to the river. A revitalized riverfront is a welcoming “front yard,” that attracts visitors and creates local business opportunities.

The purpose of this report is to provide a vision for Upper Mississippi River communities to reconnect to the river and become more active stewards to protect their watershed’s unique habitats and the river as a whole.

Part I of this report examines the variety of habitats in the Upper Mississippi River floodplain and discusses the status and threats to each habitat type. Part II addresses restoration opportunities and gives examples of instances when communities might consider a restoration project. Part III provides design principles for ecologically sensitive riverfront development, as well as resources for technical assistance and funding.