Does Mississippi River Flow Into Gulf Mexico

Background Investigation

The Mississippi River is widely known as the largest river system in the United States. It flows roughly 2,340 miles through eight states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee) before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River Basin, which covers more than 32% of the continental U.S., is also part of one of the world’s largest watersheds. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Mississippi River watershed drains an area of about 1,245,000 square miles in all. But what exactly is the fate of the Mississippi River, and does it reach the Gulf of Mexico? Let’s explore.

Impact on Global Climate Change

As the USGS explains, the Mississippi River’s flow has a significant effect on climate change and ocean circulation worldwide. Its sediments fuel coastal wetlands, sustain aquatic life, and help maintain global ocean circulation. The USGS also found that the annual discharge of freshwater from the Mississippi River is estimated to be 56 cubic kilometers – equaling a daily discharge of 159 billion gallons of water. That’s enough to fill more than 810 Olympic-size swimming pools.

A recent study published in the Scientific Reports journal demonstrated that variations in the flow of the Mississippi River can actually cause global sea level fluctuations due to the river’s remarkable transport of sediments, nutrients, and dissolved pollutants into the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin further revealed that changes in the river’s water quantity could result in more than a ~2cm rise in relative sea level every year, even for decades.

River Meets Gulf

The official location where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico is commonly referred to as the “Bird’s foot Delta”, which is located at the southeast corner of Louisiana near the city of Venice. The area is bordered by shallow lakes, swamps, and by the entrance to the Atchafalaya River. The River’s lower depth—which is between 1-9 feet—creates natural obstacles for marine life in the Gulf to travel upriver.

The delta is quickly emerging due to the sediments brought by the river. In fact, one survey estimates that the delta is growing at a rate of about 11 hectares annually. Notably, the state of Louisiana has been actively working to protect its endangered wetland areas from the damages of disruption in the river system.

The Human Element

The human element along the Mississippi River further contributes to its function. Currently, the river serves as a water supply for more than 18 million people in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee. Agriculture, transportation, and recreation are also supported by the Mississippi River Basin.

The US Army Corps of Engineers oversees control of the river’s flow by managing multi-use dams, locks and levees across the region. For example, the Bonnet Carre Spillway near New Orleans allows officials to divert a portion of the river’s high waters during times of flooding, while still allowing the flow of sediment and salt in the delta. This technique provides needed flood protection to cities like Baton Rouge, while also helping to create wetlands, which are integral to the Gulf’s delicate ecosystem.

Pollution and Wildlife Impact

While the river is significant in many communities, its high levels of pollution should not be overlooked. According to the Nature Conservancy, agricultural runoff, coal mining, and industrial sites – all of which are found in the Basin – contribute to potentially toxic pollutants in the river. For example, excess nitrogen from fertilizer contributes to large algae blooms that can harm ecosystems downriver.

As for wildlife, the Mississippi River has a wide variety of fish species, including largemouth bass, sunfishes, catfish and many other native species. Sadly, almost all of these species suffer from the loss of habitat or increased water pollution. This is why the International Union of Conservationists (IUCN) recommends a reduction in the use of fertilizers, sewage disposal, industrial and agricultural runoff. Therefore, even though the river flows into the Gulf of Mexico, proper management of backwaters and river systems is essential for its ongoing health.

Economic Impact

In addition to its obvious ecological value, the Mississippi River supports one-third of the nation’s barge traffic and is a crucial artery for commercial and recreational shipments. According to estimates by the USDA Economic Research Service, activities in Mississippi River Basin and its tributaries add approximately $450 billion to the national gross domestic product every year. Because of this, the Mississippi has been referred to as the “economic lifeline of the nation”.

Efforts to support and maintain the river’s commercial activities are a top priority of States along the Mississippi. The US Army Corps of Engineers, in partnership with the states, is responsible for establishing and maintaining the navigation system of the main stem of the Mississippi River. This includes the maintenance and operation of locks and dams, as well as the establishment of channels and other features that aid navigation.

Protection and Conservation

The Mississippi River is an important part of the United States, and for that reason deserves to be protected. Organizations such as the Mississippi River Fund help to sustain and protect the river basin by hosting educational events, emergent science workshops, and other support activities.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has also designed the “Mississippi River Conservation Partnership” to restore natural resources, enhance wildlife habitats, and protect the basin’s 200 species of fish. The USFWS also works with various federal and state agencies to raise awareness of the need to protect the waters of the Mississippi.

In addition, cities like New Orleans have made a considerable effort to protect their wetlands by working with state and federal agencies to restore and protect the Bird’s Foot Delta. This unique ecosystem serves as a nursery for thousands of birds of prey, providing food and shelter for the species.

Urban Renewal

Finally, the question we must ask ourselves is how does the presence of the Mississippi River help to shape our urban areas? The answer is rather simple: cities such as Baton Rouge and New Orleans have used the river to revitalize their economies and attract new businesses. In addition to its unparalleled transport capabilities, the Mississippi River symbolizes the spirit and heritage of the American people.

As writer Toni Morrison once said: “The Mississippi River […] has been crucial in forming the character of the nation”. Undoubtedly, its presence might have been instrumental in connecting ancient cultures, forming vital trade routes and forging rivers of history. It is this river that gives life to the rich culture of the Deep South, drawing people together with its scenic beauty and timeless stories.

Cultural Significance

The Mississippi River has been the muse for many artists, creatives, authors, and musicians. Writers such as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman documented the river’s intractable beauty and cultural importance. Memoirs, novels, and even poetry such as “Crossing the Waters” by Lily Hoang, reflect the rich and diverse essence of the Mississippi River Basin.

The area is also alive with music, from jazz to bluegrass; while filmmakers have used the delta and river basin as the backdrop to explore various themes, from slavery in the south to social unrest. In other words, the Mississippi River is an integral part of the United States, as if it were a fifth border.

Industrial Activity

Industry further flourishes along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, as grain, coal, and petroleum are freighted throughout. Aside from the obvious benefits of freighting and commercial fishing, industry along the river has created jobs for locals who manufacture and ship steel, wood and agricultural products downriver.

Moreover, casinos, resorts, and recreational areas in cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans offer year-round commercial activity along the Mississippi. This is especially true in the summer and fall, when millions of visitors from all over the U.S. flock to the area to explore the remarkable beauty of America’s fourth largest river.

Environmental Recovery and Preservation

As a result of the United States becoming more conscious of the environmental impact of their actions, state and federal authorities are working together to help recover and preserve the wetlands and ecosystem near the Mississippi River. Through a variety of projects such as restoring coastal wetlands, improving water and land management practices, and creating learning centers, the aim is to preserve the delicate habitats and restore the river’s natural processes.

By providing the necessary resources and fostering a sense of local ownership of the region, government agencies are helping to create a more sustainable and prosperous Mississippi River Basin for locals and visitors alike. This new culture of collaboration suggests that a future of environmental harmony and ecological preservation may be possible in the south.

Raymond Strasser is a passion-driven writer and researcher, dedicated to educating readers on the topic of world rivers. With a background in Geography and Environmental Studies, Raymond provides insightful pieces which explore the impact and importance that rivers have around the world.

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