What Is The Watershed Of The Mississippi River

What is a Watershed

A watershed, also known as a river basin or drainage basin, is the geographic area from which a river, stream or lake collects its water. The watershed of the Mississippi River is an extremely important ecosystem, spanning from the Rocky Mountains of Montana to the Atlantic Ocean in Louisiana.

The Mississippi River watershed covers an area of more than 3 million square kilometers and is home to approximately 18 million people. It provides water and emergency services to almost all Americans living in the United States, and is one of the world’s largest and most important river systems.

Mississippi River Watershed Origins

The confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers marks the headwaters of the Mississippi River, where they converge in the northwestern portion of the present-day United States, in the Mountain States of Montana and Wyoming. The upper reaches of the Mississippi River watershed have an elevation of over 4000 meters above sea level and contain hundreds of tributary streams and rivers.

From the Rocky Mountains the watershed extends eastward across the Great Plains and boreal forest of Canada, expanding further south within the U.S. until reaching the Gulf of Mexico. While the upper watershed is largely rural, most of the Lower Mississippi Basin is heavily populated and urbanized, with over 81 percent of its watershed in agricultural production or urban areas.

Water Cycle of the Mississippi Watershed

The water cycle of the Mississippi River begins with precipitation in the Rocky Mountains which eventually makes its way through the tributaries, into the mainstem of the Mississippi River and finally to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, the water is eventually evaporated, helping sustain people and wildlife in the basin. The basin’s ecosystems are powered by precipitation, runoff, melting snowpack and other sources of water.

At times of high water in the mainstem, the Mississippi River expands its boundaries by overflowing its natural banks, spreading into what is known as the “floodplain”, which acts like a sponge or buffer, feeding the surrounding wetlands and providing essential fish, wildlife and plant habitat.

The Mississippi River watershed also collects and stores water in rivers, lakes and other natural features, as well as in human-made reservoirs.

Benefits of the Mississippi Watershed

The Mississippi River watershed provides vital benefits to humans and wildlife. It acts as a barrier to the development of American infrastructure in the form of roads, railways and pipelines. It is also a rich source of biodiversity, including numerous endangered species, such as the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, grizzly bear and beluga whale. Additionally, the watershed supports agricultural production and provides recreational opportunities, such as fishing, hunting and boating.

The Mississippi River watershed also provides significant economic and environmental benefits. It helps provide clean drinking water to many communities, as well as serves as an important transportation route for goods and services. Additionally, the watershed helps maintain regional water quality and helps regulate regional climate.

Environmental Issues in Mississippi Watershed

Despite its many benefits, the Mississippi River watershed also faces environmental challenges. Nutrient pollution, caused by runoff from agricultural land, suburban and urban development, has degraded the water quality of many rivers, streams and wetlands in the watershed. Additionally, urbanization, water consumption and water diversion for agricultural use have all impacted the watershed, leaving many areas of the basin ecologically vulnerable.

Climate change is also having an impact on the watershed. Rising temperatures, more severe droughts and flooding, more severe storms, and sea level rise are all impacts that the watershed is facing. Furthermore, invasive species, poaching, and overfishing all threaten the native species in the basin, as well as its natural balance.

Conservation and Management of Mississippi Watershed

In order to adequately conserve and manage the Mississippi River watershed, local, state, and federal governments have joined together in various initiatives in the US and Canada. The US EPA, NOAA, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies are all actively involved in conservation and management efforts in the basin. The federal government has also established various laws and regulations to protect water quality and prevent pollution.

Additionally, a number of non-governmental organizations have launched various initiatives throughout the basin to help improve water quality and conserve biodiversity. Many of these initiatives focus on restoring wetlands in the watershed, creating greenways and buffers around rivers, and reducing runoff from urban and agricultural lands. There is also an increasing focus on ensuring that water usage is more sustainable and efficient.

Agricultural Practices in Mississippi Watershed

Agriculture is a major factor in the management of the Mississippi River watershed. Agricultural practices have a major impact on water use, water quality, and the health of aquatic resources. Poorly managed agricultural land will lead to erosion and runoff, which can pollute both surface and groundwater. Additionally, it can cause loss of fish and wildlife habitat, and deplete water resources.

In order to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, farmers need to implement sustainable agricultural practices. These include soil conservation, integrated pest management, water conservation, and the use of cover crops. Additionally, farmers need to make use of low-till farming techniques in order to reduce soil erosion and reduce the amount of runoff entering the watershed.

Industrial Practices in Mississippi Watershed

Industries are another major factor in the management of the Mississippi River watershed. Industrial activities such as logging, mining, and wastewater discharges have an enormousimpact on the watershed and the ecosystem within it. These activities release large amounts of pollutants into the water, which can damage aquatic resources, reduce water quality and disrupt the balance of the ecosystem.

In order to protect the watershed from industrial activities, industries need to be held accountable and adhere to laws and regulations pertaining to the discharge of pollutants. Additionally, industries need to employ sustainable practices such as renewable energy, waste minimization, and water conservation.

Adaptation and Resilience in Mississippi Watershed

In order to effectively manage the Mississippi River watershed in the face of climate change, adaptation and resilience are essential. This involves the use of technologies and strategies that can help protect the basin from the impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, droughts, and floods.

These strategies include the use of flood protection and restoration projects, water conservation and reuse, the use of green infrastructure, and the creation of natural areas and buffers. Additionally, it is important to monitor the watershed and use data to inform decision makers about potential risks and vulnerabilities in the basin.


Overall, the Mississippi River watershed is an essential resource for the US and Canada and is home to a diverse array of species and habitats. In order for this vital ecosystem to remain healthy, conservation and management plans, as well as adaptation and resilience strategies, need to be enacted in order to protect the basin from the impacts of climate change and industrial activities.

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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