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The Mississippi River

Working with Agriculture to Improve River Health

How Bioreactors Make a Difference

Farmers are helping reduce the amount of nitrogen entering streams by installing bioreactors.


Working with farmers at the Boone

Some farming techniques help keep nutrients out of streams. Watch a short video


Flowing through America’s Heartland

At more than 2,320 miles long from its headwaters in Minnesota to its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River is the third largest river system in the world. The river and its tributary streams drain more than 40 percent of the United States, enable the transportation of 316 million net tons of goods, supply drinking water to 15 million people and provide habitat for thousands of fish, birds and other wildlife.

The river basin also contains some of the most productive soil on Earth and is at the heart of our nation’s agricultural economy. Farmers in the basin produce the majority of the corn, soybeans, wheat, cattle and hogs, as well as a significant amount of the cotton and rice grown in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the market value of agricultural products in the basin is more than $54 billion annually.

The Mississippi River basin is one of The Nature Conservancy’s highest priorities for conservation worldwide. It is a vital migration corridor for 60 percent of North America's bird species and supports 25 percent of its fish species.

The Conservancy has been protecting lands and waters in the basin for 50 years. Today, teams in 10 states work in more than 30 priority areas to address some of the most critical threats to the river including habitat loss and declining ecosystem health.

In a watershed like the Mississippi, what happens on the rural landscape and in nearby towns and cities affects our streams. Rural and urban land uses affect the rate and timing of surface water flows, sediment levels and nutrient concentrations. Each contributing factor is important and poses different environmental management challenges.

Too much sediment in streams can cover fish spawning beds, change the course of rivers and smother aquatic life. High water volumes traveling at accelerated rates can severely alter fish and mussel habitats. Elevated nutrient levels can cause algal blooms that rob the water of its life-giving oxygen. The "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico is an example of how nutrients at the headwaters of a river can create an area of low oxygen that affects seafood production, livelihoods and marine life thousands of miles away.

Conservation practices implemented on farmland in the Mississippi River basin in the twentieth century have corrected many errors of the past. But with the growing global demand for food, fiber and fuel, agricultural production is expected to intensify in the coming years.

The Nature Conservancy believes there are ways to improve river health without sacrificing economic prosperity. In this brochure, we focus on the good stewardship work underway in rural landscapes through the efforts of farmers, our conservation partners and others to build on previous successes in agricultural watershed management.

When it comes to agriculture, the Conservancy is one of the new kids on the block. But in the field of biological conservation, supported by research and monitoring, we have a long and strong track record going back to 1951. Our ability to bring significant public and private funds for conservation to our work and our reputation for working with a wide array of partners in agricultural watersheds makes the Conservancy a vital partner wherever we work in the United States and around the world.

We also know the value of learning from and collaborating with local watershed partnerships, and we understand that effective, lasting conservation results from locally-led and community-based projects.

Of equal importance to the Conservancy’s watershed conservation philosophy is the use of adaptive management or what we call Conservation by Design. Advancements in watershed conservation will only occur through well-planned, targeted actions whose effectiveness is continuously monitored in the real world.

Download the brochure, and learn how the Conservancy is working with farmers, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, grower groups, agribusiness and others to restore the health of the Mississippi and its tributary streams in a way that works with the region’s agricultural practices and traditions.

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