States, Congress Should Do More To Help Protect Mississippi River, Writer Says

Big River Magazine Editor Says Agricultural Runoff, Climate Change Are Issues Facing River
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The Wisconsin River flows into the Mississippi River in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

The U.S. Environmental Agency and the 10 states that border the Mississippi River, including Wisconsin, are not doing nearly enough to protect the waterway from pollution and contamination, according to a recent report.

The report released earlier this month from the Mississippi River Collaborative is meant to pressure the EPA into taking specific actions to address some of the river's biggest environment challenges, because the states "haven't achieved any significant pollution reductions on their own," according to the report.

It's welcome news to those who believe voluntary measures haven’t been enough to clean things up.

"The states kind of turn their backs on the river," said Reggie McLeod, editor and publisher of Big River magazine, which covers the Mississippi River and the Driftless region of Wisconsin.

McLeod believes one of the biggest reasons for that is states trying to shift the burden of issues facing a shared river onto other states.

"After a while, you become pretty aware that the river is at the edge of attention for politicians and a lot of people, because the Mississippi river is a boundary line between states," he said. "It’s just not in people’s interest to pay attention to it because it’s on the edge of their interest and it’s enormously complicated to try and sort things out.”

And it's not just environmental issues, either. Another area McLeod sees disagreement on is fishing regulations on the river, an area he calls the "lowest common denominator" between states.

"In fact, they're even more lax than that, because the season stays open 12 months a year on all the fish," he said. "You don't have a fishing season, it’s always the fishing season."

States working collaboratively on river issues could be a solution, but it's easier said than done, if Minnesota and Wisconsin are any indication.

The two states once formed a joint commission called the Minnesota-Wisconsin Boundary Area Commission. It was a cooperative effort between the states to address environmental and legal issues affecting the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. It was decommissioned in 2001 after Wisconsin declined to fund it.

So, while McLeod thinks there’s more states can do, he's also calling on the federal government to step up its efforts, which he says have been largely unsuccessful in the past.

"They've been trying to solve the problem of the nutrients in the river, the phosphorus and nitrogen that creates the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico," he said. "They've been trying to solve that for quite a while, and it keeps getting worse."

While the report from the Mississippi River Collaborative points the finger at the EPA for the problems, McLeod believes Congress is more to blame for the current issues. He said their decision to exempt agriculture from the Clean Water Act, which was passed in 1972, is having serious consequences today.

"The worst pollution from industry and from sewage treatment and that sort of things has largely been improved," he said. "Agriculture has become a worse problem, and Congress has really failed to pass any legislation setting any kind of reasonable minimum standards for agriculture."

McLeod said it one of the worst sources of pollution for the Mississippi River has become the Minnesota River, and agriculture is to blame. He said in an effort to create more cropland, farmers are installing many new drainage tiles while are carrying nutrients into the river … which has additional consequences.

"It’s completely changed the hydrology of the river, so that the river goes from being very high to very low, very quickly," he said. "It erodes a lot of the banks and carries an enormous amount of soil into the Mississippi River."

While he hopes Congress will adopt standards for farmers, McLeod is also hoping they'll make a serious attempt to tackle climate change, something he says is already impacting things drastically in the Driftless area. He said the area is seeing fewer but heavier rains, and that’s dangerous in an area full of valleys and bluffs.

"If you get a large rainfall, it’s like pouring something into a big funnel," he said. "People die, houses slide off of hillsides, because the water is so saturated."

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