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Does the Mississippi River Have a Future? Of course it does, but maybe not the one we think

March 22, 2013Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured Posts, Program & AnnouncementsComments Off on Does the Mississippi River Have a Future? Of course it does, but maybe not the one we think
City of Davenport, Iowa in 1858

City of Davenport, Iowa in 1858

Two weeks ago, I was pleased and honored to present an address at the Henry Farnam Dinner, an annual event sponsored by a variety of Quad Cities Mississippi River advocates.  Farnam was the president of the Rock Island Railroad in the mid-1850s, when the line reached the Mississippi at Rock Island IL, thereby becoming the first complete rail connection between the Atlantic and the Mississippi.

Dinner organizers asked me to talk about the Mississippi in 2054, 200 years after the rail connection and accompanying “Grand Excursion” focused attention on what was then known as the Great Northwest.

Because I knew the group was familiar with the Mississippi, and cared about the river’s future,I challenged the group to imagine that “the Mississippi River as we know it” might cease to exist by 2054.

The key phrase, of course, is “as we know it.”  Most of those in the room, even people who had worked on river issues for decades, have a good “working knowledge” of the river, and how it can be a catalyst for urban development, recreation, and a new “front door” to the city.  The river’s role in regional hydrological systems is not so well understood, neither is that system’s fragility and instability.

I’m not a hydrologist, and certainly don’t know the river down in that stretch–the Quad Cities of Moline and Rock Island Illinois, Davenport and Bettendorf Iowa are about 300 miles by road south and east of St. Paul–as well as my audience does.  But I do know enough to suggest that the present Mississippi River, big and impressive and significant as it is, is threatened by two significant changes that are already under way.

First, the river itself, as a biological and physical system, is changing.  Invasive Asian carps are maybe the most visible manifestation of these changes, but the recent drought, which threatened to close the river to barge traffic this winter is another.  Climate change will have further destabilizing influences on the river system as well.

Second, we are demanding more and more from the river.  It has been a matter of federal policy since 1987 that the river is a nationally significant ecosystem as well as a nationally significant transportation system.  Tens of millions of people in river cities draw their domestic water from the Mississippi; the river is an increasing source of irrigation water, and industrial needs continue to grow as well.  By 2054, there may not be enough Mississippi River to go around.

What is to be done?  I argued to the audience that we have to know the river even better than we do now, to take the advances in caring for the river that have been made over the past 30 years and continue, to understand both the human systems of the cities and the river system as a system.  Then, we may begin to devise ways in which those systems can better, more sustanably, fit together.

The Quad Cities is in a strong place to continue this work, which may be said to turn “cities on the river” into “River Cities.”  There’s much to be done, by both public and private sector organizations, by all levels of government, and diverse sections of the economy.  But the pieces are in place and the will is there.


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A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.