Monitoring the Mississippi

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

something means watching, observing or checking it for some purpose. This may seem easy, but in the case of the Mississippi River, which has an imposing and sometimes harsh environment, special skills and gear are required to detect changes.

Furthermore, biologists must take special care when designing a monitoring program. They have to be careful not to bias the data, which would lead to erroneous conclusions. Finally, because monitoring programs are designed to detect broad environmental changes over many years (long term), they cannot determine the direct causes of biological trends. Therefore, a certain type of research, called "cause and effect," should be added to a monitoring program to help explain long-term changes. This is the program used by the Open River Field Station.

Since the establishment of the Open River Field Station, much has been learned about the ecology of the open Mississippi River. Trend data are only about 10 years old, so definitive statements about trends in the health of the river may be premature. However, the data seems to indicate little short-term change in the aquatic communities and water quality of the open river. Most damage to animals and their habitat occurred long before the monitoring program was established.

Because of a dearth of information about the open Mississippi River, biologists can't be sure how many species may have been extirpated from the river or to what degree the community of animals are disturbed. Because no one had ever taken the time to look, some animals thought to be rare or extirpated may not be. The Long Term Resource Monitoring Program will provide more information about existing populations over time.

The benefits to Missourians from the Environmental Management Program include free information and aerial photos, the construction of habitat rehabilitation projects to improve the river's environmental conditions and better fishing.

In addition, partnerships have been established that have helped bring environmentalists, engineers and industrialists together to balance the river's delicate ecology with economic needs. This is important, considering recreational uses (including sportfishing) of the Upper Mississippi River account for more than $1.2 billion annually in direct expenditures.

The Mississippi River will never look like it did before European settlement, nor is that one of the goals of the Environmental Management Program. However, we do need to know how the river is reacting to human activities so we can manage it for the benefit of all who depend on it.

Recognizing the value of the data collected by the field stations to commerce, navigation and recreation, Congress has authorized the Environmental Management Program into perpetuity. As the years go by, we will know more and more about our country's most valuable river.

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