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Explore the Mississippi River

Day 3: Morning — The River under a Microscope

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Story Highlights
  • The Long Term Resource Monitoring Program (LTRMP) is comprised of staff at field stations on six stretches of the Upper Mississippi River. It's a cooperative effort between the USGS and the five UMR states.
  • Field station staff collects data on six targets reflecting the overall health of the river: fish, invertebrates, aquatic plants, water quality, sedimentation, and land use and cover.
  • Data from the LTRMP study has been used, for example, to inform the drawdown of pools on the river to encourage the growth of aquatic vegetation.

By Tom Eisenhart

Day three of our river journey takes us to the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center (UMESC) run by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The Center is a non-descript, single-story building located on the outskirts of La Crosse. Today, we'll tour the facility's laboratories that house thousands of native and non-native invasive fish species.

But first, we meet with Mark Gaikowski, a USGS research physiologist, to get an overview of the Center and the numerous studies underway, many that depend on fish hovering in laboratory tanks.

A small sampling of work conducted by USGS scientists and visiting researchers includes:

  • the development of new ways to control invasive Asian carp species;
  • evaluation of the impact of pharmaceuticals flushed into rivers on native mussels; and
  • the study of ways to deliver pisicides that will specifically kill zebra mussels that have spread from the Great Lakes into the Mississippi and its tributaries.

The UMESC is also the 'nerve center' for the Long Term Resource Monitoring Program (LTRMP). With more than 20 years of data collection on the Upper Mississippi, the LTRMP is considered one of, if not the, largest and longest running river monitoring studies in the world.

Fish Aplenty

As Mark talks, he leads us to the lab containing native fish species. To avoid contamination, the native fish are kept in a lab separate from invasives. Bio-security here is serious business; before entering the lab, we rub our feet on a plastic mat that extrudes antiseptic white foam.

Inside, we find rows upon rows of large rectangular white tanks with blue liners. In one tank, endangered pallid sturgeon form a dense mass as they hover over one another. The water temperature is kept at a brisk 54 degrees, like all the tanks. Outside, warm water species such as walleye and channel catfish enjoy more spacious pond digs.

Like the fish in the invasives tanks next door, the native fish will be used in the numerous studies conducted at the Center.

While the natives are interesting to see, what I'd really like is to get an up close look at Asian carp; better yet leaping carp.

As we enter the invasives lab, I see a round tank covered with a mesh screen and ask why that's the case. Mark tells me there's silver carp in it; the screen keeps them from leaping out if there were a loud noise in the lab. To demonstrate, he kneels down and knocks hard a couple of times on the tank, but gets no response. "No jumpers today," he says.

Partnership Spurs Scientific Exchange

Following our tour, we meet with Yao Yin, a USGS research ecologist. I'm interviewing Yao for a video that commemorates the five year anniversary of the Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership (GRP), an effort to protect and restore great rivers of the world like the Mississippi.

Yao modestly describes himself as a 'foot soldier' for the LTRMP. He provides technical support for the design of experiments and oversees the monitoring of aquatic vegetation on the Upper Mississippi.

The USGS and scientists like Yao have been important partners with the Conservancy and the GRP in accomplishing one of the things the Partnership was created for: increasing the exchange of knowledge among science and river managers. He has helped arrange and participate in multiple exchanges between river scientists from the United States and China.

Yao's perspective on the challenges of balancing the needs of people and nature that depend on large river systems may be unique among scientists.

He spent his childhood years on a tributary of the Yangtze and has lived and worked on the Mississippi River for more than 20 years. When the Three Gorges dam was built, Yao's childhood home was engulfed by the reservoir that rose behind it. Yao explains that while he can understand the reasons why China built the dam, it "has been a tremendous loss for the people."

Yet, there is a growing realization by the people and government of China about the importance of managing the Yangtze River sustainably, Yao believes. Continuing knowledge exchange is key. Pointing to four Chinese scientists who recently visited to learn more about the LTRMP, he notes that "it gave them lots of hope for what they can do on the Yangtze."

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