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Going with the flow: Forums to sustain Mississippi River

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 7, 2012 - Over the past few years, the area where the Mississippi River connects with the Gulf of Mexico has been battered and ravaged by storms and hurricanes, not to mention the spill from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

In addition, pollutants and chemicals harmful to the river and its wildlife have trickled down from the north, flowing down the 2,320 miles of the Mississippi, mixing with the water and latching onto the riverbed.

As part of the Big River Works effort, America's Wetland Foundation has been trying to foster cooperation among the cities and states along the Mississippi to address issues of sustainability.

To bring people on board, the foundation has been holding leadership forums in cities up and down the river, including one in St. Louis on Thursday. This year's forums were in New Orleans, Memphis and yesterday's in St. Louis, and they will continue next year in Chicago and Minneapolis.

Val Marmillion, the managing director of America's Wetland Foundation, said the goal of St. Louis' forum was to examine conditions that affect the health of the river itself.

"(We're) dealing with the big elephant in the room with water quality and water quantity,” Marmillion said.

Several factors play a significant role on the river’s quality, but a major one is rain, which influences the runoff into the local water supply.

“In the last couple years, our biggest problem was actually too much rainfall,” Jim Angel, state climatologist for Illinois, said. “This year’s been the exact opposite with too little precipitation.”

While too much rain can cause flooding and property damage, a drought can be equally as harmful. If a field’s crop doesn’t produce, Angel said, it can leave behind an abundance of fertilizers and other chemicals that can easily wash into the nearby Mississippi during heavy rain.

Depending on how the weather this winter holds up, these chemicals may be swept away, down toward the gulf.

“If we got something close to normal precipitation, I’d think we’d be all right, especially if we got a lot of snow fall,” Angel said. “Probably the worst thing that we could get in December or January are big rains that would flush all that out.”

Slowing the flow of these chemicals into the river is crucial, said Nancy Stoner, the acting assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. Stoner said that an overflow of nutrients can cause a disturbance in the ecosystem. For example, it could spur a rapid growth of blue algae and rob the water of oxygen needed by fish and other organisms.

“It’s the same as it is with people,” Stoner said. “You need to eat some to stay alive, but if you eat too much, you get fat.”

The foundation is working with several states and organizations, including an EPA task force led by Stoner, to regulate the flow of these chemicals into the river. They are discussing tools like saturated buffers -- rows of plants between farmland and the river to absorb the runoff nutrients -- to  protect the water quality of the Mississippi.

The first step is to make people understand the benefits of living near the river, as well how to cultivate and protect the Mississippi as a resource, said Marmillion.

“We need to become river people,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure that we come out of this with people understanding the river.”

Dan Fox is a Beacon intern.