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What is the Mississippi River Basin?

What is the Mississippi River Basin, and why is it so important?

The Mississippi River is, to put it simply, big. It flows 2,350 miles from its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota through the center of the continental United States to the Gulf of Mexico. It is a major migration route for North American birds and fish, and is home to around 260 species of fish and over 300 species of birds. It is one of the world’s most important commercial waterways. Every year, million of tons of rice from farms in Arkansas and Louisiana are transported via barge. It’s final destination? China. Rice is just one of many goods transported domestically and internationally via the Mississippi.

Beginning in the 19th century, the Mississippi became an important transportation channel for commerce, industry, and recreation. Engineering the river to provide navigation and control flooding continues to be a management issue. Engineers have to consider changing floodplain regions as a result of the natural shift of the river’s course, as well as nutrient runoff from agriculture located in the floodplains. To increase navigation potential, engineer’s connected Lake Michigan and the Illinois River, making yet another path for invasive species.

The Mississippi River Basin Watershed, the area drained by a river’s tributaries, is about 1.2 million square miles, and includes all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces, about 40% of the continental United States. In Wisconsin, tributaries include the Rock River, Wisconsin River, Chippewa River, and St. Croix River, among many others.

The Mississippi in the Mid-West

Balancing the needs and demands of navigation, agriculture, recreation, industry, and wildlife continues to be a challenge. There are no easy answers, as several global entities, compete for their interests in the Basin region. This complex ecological system will continue to be an important part of the conversation about water and life.


To read about organizations committed to responsible management of the Upper Mississippi Region, click here.

Michala Roberts

Graduate Assistant for Go Big Read