How The Mississippi River Has Changed

Since its beginnings nearly 20,000 years ago, the Mississippi River has been an incredibly important part of American life. In pre-colonial times, the Mississippi was a source of food, trade and transportation for many Native American nations and served as an important factor in the early growth of the United States. Over the last few centuries, the Mississippi has seen dramatic changes in its usage, even playing a vital role in the Civil War.

The Mississippi is the second-longest river in the United States. Spanning from its source in northern Minnesota to its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi is over 2,000 miles long and is a major waterway that supports the majority of states in the nation’s midsection. This region of the country is dependent on the Mississippi for the majority of its freshwater resources and transportation purposes. The major navigational channel of the Mississippi serves hundreds of commercial and recreational boats, barges and vessels each year.

Since its creation, the Mississippi has been essential to the growth of the nation’s economy. In the 19th century, goods ranging from timber, flour and other agricultural products were being transported on steamboats that navigated the length of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The goods were then exported to other parts of the country, allowing for the settling of the Midwest and western United States. Even today, goods like coal, grain, chemicals and crude oil are transported along the Mississippi River, connecting their point of production to the rest of the country.

Despite its importance, the Mississippi River is far from a pristine landmark. Large-scale agricultural efforts and the growth of urban centers in the Mississippi’s watershed have caused immense environmental issues. Nearly half of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Gulf of Mexico comes from the Mississippi River watershed. This pollution has created drastic issues such as hypoxia, meaning there is not enough oxygen within the water, causing a dramatic decrease in aquatic life.

Recently, some areas of the Mississippi have begun efforts to reduce pollution and limit the amount of runoff into the river. This includes limiting fertilizer usage and enacting agriculture management plans that focus on best practices for farmers and ranchers. Additionally, local governments have enacted conservation regulations to protect riverbanks, reducing sediment runoff into the main channel.

The United States army Corps of Engineers has also implemented two massive projects to control the Mississippi River: The Old and New Rivers and the Old and New Levees. The Old and New Rivers are a series of dams, locks and canals that are used to control the flow of water in the Mississippi basin. The Old and New Levees are the walls built between the river and its tributaries, ensuring water does not overspill during periods of heavy rain.

Urban Development

In the early 20th century, many cities and towns in the United States began to sprawl up along the Mississippi River. Of these towns, New Orleans and Memphis are the two that have been the most significantly impacted by urban development and polluting industries. Memphis has recently seen an increase in residential development, forcing out some of its long-time, low-income inhabitants. As a result, the area has seen an increase in air and water pollution.

New Orleans is a city that has seen innumerable changes due to industrial development. The city is located at the mouth of the Mississippi and is perched on what is known as a delta. Owing to its unique geographical location, the city is especially prone to flooding during hurricanes and intense rainstorms. To combat floods, the Army Corps of Engineers has implemented a series of levees and pumps to prevent the city from being overwhelmed. Despite the increased flood control, a catastrophic flood in 2005 served as an example of how vulnerable the city still is to the river’s changing conditions.

In New Orleans and elsewhere along the Mississippi, economic revitalization efforts have been implemented. The federal government is encouraging local governments and businesses to redevelop areas along the river, focusing on creating mixed-use communities rather than high-rise buildings. Additionally, there has been a renewed effort in green construction and increased water-based recreational activities. This includes the construction of bike paths and waterfront parks.

The Impact of Climate Change

Climate change is likely to have a considerable impact on the Mississippi River over the coming decades. Warmer weather patterns will likely cause the Mississippi to experience rapid rises and falls in water levels, forcing researchers and engineers to constantly adjust the river’s flow and levels in order to keep the river’s aquatic life and habitats healthy. Additionally, climate change will make the river prone to more frequent and powerful floods, which could overwhelm the levees put in place to contain them.

Climate change is also likely to cause an increase in the temperature of the river water. Warmer water temperatures could be damaging to the aquatic life in the river, as some species are adapted to survive in a specific temperature range. Additionally, warmer waters increase the amount of evaporation in the river, leading to a decrease in the amount of freshwater in the system. As a result, the river’s overall flow will likely be weakened, leading to reduced navigation and navigation-related jobs.

The harsh droughts and flooding caused by climate change could also have a major effect on industries along the river bank. Drought is likely to cause a decrease in the amount of water available for agricultural use, while floods could present both a logistical challenge and an economic cost to businesses and citizens alike. Furthermore, the destabilization of riverbanks and coastal areas could threaten infrastructure and erode away land that had been previously protected and developed.

Preservation Efforts

Despite the challenges posed by climate change and economic development, the Mississippi is still a largely viable waterway. In the last few decades, different energy cities, industries, and other stakeholders have implemented programs to improve the Mississippi’s water quality. This includes the Mississippi River Basin Partnership, a coalition of states, organizations, and government entities working together to reduce pollution in the Mississippi and its tributaries, and the Alluvial Valley Management Project, which is focused on maintaining levees, wetlands and other agricultural and coastal preservation areas along the Mississippi.

The Mississippi River also serves as a hotspot for recreation and tourism in the region. Every year, millions of people travel to witness the grandeur of the Mississippi, exploring its length via boat, plane, automobile and foot. This has led to an economic boost for many communities along the river and has provided a much needed economic benefit for numerous local businesses and rural areas.

The Mississippi River has also seen a recent push for environmental conservation projects. The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit conservation organization has put a heavy focus on the river and its tributaries for many years and, in the last few decades, their efforts have been joined by other non-profits and businesses seeking to enact a range of conservation efforts, including the protection of native fish and birds.

The Future of the Mississippi

As we look to the future, the Mississippi River faces many challenges. The combination of climate change, urbanization and pollution has caused many issues for the river and its surrounding communities. However, with careful management and conservation efforts, the Mississippi has a chance to become a major engine of economic growth and revitalization for the region.

That being said, the Mississippi River is not a static fixture on the American landscape. The river is a constantly adapting and changing organism, which necessitates the implementation of innovative and adaptive management plans in order to ensure its continued health and vitality. With the collective effort and collaboration of local, state and federal entities, we can work together to ensure the future viability and sustainability of the Mississippi River.

Restoration of Natural Habitat

Environmental conservation organizations have also focused on restoring the Mississippi’s natural habitats. These organizations have joined forces with local governments and businesses to outline plans to restore wetlands and the riverbanks of the Mississippi. These efforts have helped to reduce sediment runoff, reduce the nutrients that feed algal blooms, and create habitats for more wildlife in the region.

These organizations have also worked to create networks of canals, lakes and other small bodies of water that are meant to increase the diversity of habitats and reduce the amount of sediment and nutrient runoff into the Mississippi River. Additionally, they’ve created programs to reintroduce native fish species into the Mississippi’s environment, creating a better habitat for these important species.

The restoration of natural habitats has had a positive effect on the Mississippi River. The water is now clearer than it was in the past and this clarity has helped the aquatic life in the river. Additionally, the growth of vegetated areas has also helped reduce the amount of sediment that is entering the river. This, in turn, has increased the quality of the water, improving fish habitats and encouraging recreational activities like fishing, swimming, and canoeing.

Improved Human Health

The restoration of the Mississippi River is beneficial to the health of both the environment and human beings. The improved water quality has decreased instances of water-related illnesses, such as skin infections, gastrointestinal illnesses, and respiratory illnesses. This has been beneficial to the people who rely on the Mississippi River for drinking water and recreational activities.

Also, restoring the wetlands and other habitats along the Mississippi has resulted in increased air quality. By eliminating nutrient runoff, the Mississippi has become a beacon of clean air in many cities. This has reduced instances of asthma and other respiratory ailments, improving the health and well-being of people living in these areas.

Finally, the environment along the Mississippi is becoming healthier and more diverse as a result of restoration efforts. With the increase in wildlife and aquatic species, the river has become a viable option for viewing animals in their natural habitat. There has even been a resurgence of recreational fishing and other water-related sports, leading to an increase in the number of people enjoying the river.


The Mississippi River has been a crucial part of American life since its creation some 20,000 years ago, and its importance is likely to remain strong in the future. With the implementation of conservation and restoration efforts, the river and its waters will continue to be a major source of fresh water and economic activity in the United States. However, with the effects of climate change increasing and the possibility of more powerful floods, it is clear that there is no time to rest on our laurels when it comes to the health of the Mississippi.

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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