Monitoring the Mississippi

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

When Europeans first gazed upon it, the Mississippi River looked much different than it does today. In 1797, Nicolas de Finiels, who traveled the river from the mouth of the Ohio River to St. Louis, described, "many lengthy detours, endless islands, bends where the current moves as swiftly as lightning, innumerable sand bars, snags, fallen trees here and there, rocks, sometimes in the channel, sometimes along the banks."

Even then, people were interested in using the river for commerce. Several historical accounts describe how commercial harvesters cleared the river islands of trees. In the interest of commerce and easy navigation, the river was made straight and deep, or as straight and deep as dikes, rip-rapped banks and dredging could make it.

The result of this transformation was a river that no longer could meander within its floodplain. The river's natural processes of eroding and flooding, which created new habitats from old, were either destroyed or arrested. The river's ecological health suffered at the expense of economic growth.

To better understand the effects of human induced changes on the river's ecology, Congress in 1986 created the Environmental Management Program. The program is designed to provide river managers with information and tools to help them balance the competing interests of navigation, industry, conservation and recreational uses of the river.

The EMP consists of two major elements or programs: Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement and Long Term Resource Monitoring. Five basin states, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin, maintain Long Term Resource Management field stations to collect data along the 1300-mile Upper Mississippi River system.

The Open River Field Station, near Cape Girardeau, began operating in January 1991. It was the last of six field stations added to the Long Term Resource Management Program. At full staff, the field station supports six permanent employees specializing in fisheries biology, limnology (water quality), invertebrates, botany and ecology.

"Open river" refers to the stretch of the Upper Mississippi River not impounded by dams. It lies between the confluences of the Missouri and Ohio rivers. The open river study area is between river miles 30 and 80 (roughly 25 miles north and south of Cape Girardeau). The station's staff also conduct specific studies beyond their study area.

Field station biologists collect information on water quality, water levels and flows, bathymetry, vegetation, fish, invertebrates, sediment types and distribution, sediment and nutrient transport and land cover and use. Some of the things they look for include changes in

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