At 2,320 miles, the Mississippi River ranks among the largest of the world's rivers, draining all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces. It is a vital migration corridor for 60 percent of North America's bird species and provides critical habitat for fish, mussels and rare creatures like the Louisiana black bear.
The river plays a vital role in the well-being of human communities who depend on it for water, food, jobs and recreation. It provides drinking water to 18 million people, links agricultural producers to markets around the world and provides hunters, anglers, boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts with exceptional recreational opportunities.
The Mississippi has been extensively modified during the last century by locks, dams and levees. In most places, the river no longer inundates its floodplains during high water periods, contributing to a decline in the abundance and diversity of plant and animal life. With fewer flooded wetlands to filter the river's flows, increased run-off of excess nutrients and sediment has reduced water quality.
Conversely, because of altered water flows into the Gulf of Mexico, coastal estuaries are being starved of needed sediment and a dead zone in the Gulf, where little plant or animal life survives, is increasing.
With fewer marshes, wetlands and islands to protect coastal communities like New Orleans from flooding and storm events, these cities will be more at risk of catastrophic natural events, plants and animals will be lost and people's livelihoods will be impacted.
Conservation that Works
Today, Nature Conservancy teams in 10 states are working in many priority areas in the Mississippi River basin to address some of the river's most critical threats including habitat loss and incompatible land use.
Conservation strategies include:
- reconnecting the river with its floodplain at places along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers,
- reforesting bottomland hardwood forests along rivers in Arkansas and Louisiana,
- collaborating with partners on restoration of the Mississippi River delta,
- working with farmers to identify sustainable approaches to land use,
- acquiring land and conservation easements,
- working with private landowners on voluntary land management practices, and
- building support for the river — at both the highest levels of government and the community level.
Forests, wetlands and other habitats provide valuable services to humanity, including storing flood waters and keeping pollutants out of rivers. Conservancy staff are analyzing the potential financial returns to landowners of adopting land uses aimed at the production of these kinds of ecosystem services rather than marginal agricultural activity.
Issues affecting the Mississippi River — habitat loss to agriculture and development, impacts of hydropower, restoration of water quality and conservation of biodiversity — link it to other great rivers around the world. Through collaborations with partners, the Conservancy is sharing its science expertise and knowledge about the Mississippi River to advance conservation progress on a local, regional and global scale. (Learn more about the sustainable management of the word's greatest rivers through the Great Rivers Partnership).
We must bring a collaborative, basin-wide perspective to the Mississippi River Watershed’s greatest management challenges. This is the fundamental purpose of America’s Great Watershed Initiative, or AGWI. Learn more—download the America's Great Watershed Initiative factsheet.