The Mississippi River helps power the nation’s economy and provides water, wildlife habitat, and other essential natural resources.
America’s Greatest River – the Mississippi – is a watery superhighway that helps power the nation’s economy. The river is the spine of one of the world’s most extensive inland waterway systems, allowing the efficient movement of grain, petroleum products, coal, chemicals and other products throughout the heartland and across the globe. Manufacturing plants, power plants and cities depend on hundreds of millions gallons of clean water from the river daily.
Yet, this working river, despite centuries of engineering and manipulation, is also an enduring natural treasure that retains a raw wildness and ranks among the Amazon, Yangtze, Nile, Congo, Parana and other great riverine ecosystems.
The River’s Reaches
River scientists and managers view the 2,320-mile Mississippi as having three distinct reaches: the Upper Mississippi, from the headwaters in Minnesota to the Missouri River confluence at St. Louis; the Middle Mississippi, from St. Louis downstream to the Ohio River confluence at Cairo, Ill.; and the Lower Mississippi, from the Ohio confluence downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee focuses its efforts on the lower river’s free-flowing 950 miles and what remains of the unprotected floodplain, the area between the federally maintained earthen levees and natural bluffs along both sides of the river.
The LMRCC has identified eight sections, or reaches, of the lower river, each about 40 miles long, where it will focus its conservation efforts. These sections, called Conservation Reaches, were chosen because they provide valuable habitat for fish and wildlife; they each contain a channel crossing; the batture is wide in the reach; and there is a concentration of previously identified potential projects. The LMRCC has identified more than 100 potential restoration and access-improvement projects in the eight reaches. Conservation Reach No. 2 at Memphis is the subject of a new federal feasibility study to examine restoring ecological structure and function to diminished aquatic and terrestrial habitats such as floodplain forests, wetlands and side channels to benefit fish and wildlife, water and air quality, local and regional economies, and stakeholders. Other Conservation Reaches will be examined in later feasibility studies.
This 2 million acres of land and water, what locals collectively call the “batture,” is out of sight from most Americans. But it is much more than the sole domain of barges. There are secondary river channels, islands, forests, wetlands, sandbars, sloughs and lakes. These habitats provide homes, food and rest stops for hundreds of species of fish, birds, large mammals and more. They also allow for world-class fishing, hunting, paddling, cycling, bird watching and other outdoor experiences.
Since 1994, the LMRCC has worked hand-in-hand with engineers, scientists, private landowners and others to help manage the Lower Mississippi in ways that respect its economic value while sustaining important ecological processes, restoring altered habitats and raising the profile of this unsung natural wonder.
Get To Know the Lower Mississippi River
- The 2-million-acre active floodplain of the lower river, the land and water between the federal levee system often called the “batture,” is the nation’s largest river floodplain (land where the river floods unimpeded). It is nearly 15 miles wide in places. Before major levees were constructed, the river’s unrestricted floodplain was up to 100 or more miles wide.
- Water from 41 percent of the continental United States and parts of two Canadian provinces drains into the Mississippi River and flows to the Gulf of Mexico.
- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shortened the Lower Mississippi River by more 150 miles from 1929 to 1942, mainly by blasting through narrow necks of land at bends, a process called a cutoff, to speed the flow of floodwaters downstream and shorten the river for shipping.
- The teddy bear, one of the world’s most popular children’s toys, was inspired by President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 bear hunt near Vicksburg, Mississippi.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared in January 2020 that the population of the Interior Least Tern had recovered enough to be removed from the federal list of endangered species. Sandbars and islands along the Lower Mississippi River provide the core of nesting habitat for the fish-eating bird, which now is thought to number about 18,000 individuals.
- It takes 90 days for a drop of water to flow the entire length of the Mississippi River.
- The Alligator Gar, the largest freshwater fish living in the Lower Mississippi River, can measure up to 6 or more feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds. This living fossil traces its heritage back 100 million years to the Cretaceous Period.
- The Mississippi River Alluvial Valley, the historic floodplain of the lower river, provides habitat for 40 percent of North America’s breeding and migratory ducks, geese and swans.
- To reproduce, females of the Ohio River Shrimp, Macrobrachium ohione, must migrate up to 1,000 miles downstream along the Lower Mississippi River to release their eggs in the brackish or salty waters along the Gulf of Mexico. Once hatched and developed, the ¼-inch-long young shrimp travel back upstream for hundreds of miles. This amazing migration between fresh and marine water is called amphidromy.
- The Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee has identified eight sections, or reaches, of the lower river, each about 40 miles long, where it will focus its conservation efforts. These sections, called Conservation Reaches, were chosen because they may provide valuable habitat for rare species; they each contain a channel crossing; the batture is wide in the reach; and there is a concentration of previously identified potential projects. The LMRCC has identified more than 100 potential restoration and access-improvement projects in the eight reaches.
- With the delisting of the Interior Least Tern this year, the federal government classifies two other species as endangered along the lower river: the Pallid Sturgeon and the Fat Pocketbook mussel.
- Up to 120 species have freshwater fish have been recorded in the lower river; about 90 species reproduce in the lower river.
- The Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee has rehabilitated more than 115 miles of secondary channels since 2006, working with agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps of Engineers and private conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy and the Mississippi River Trust to restore flows important to fish and other wildlife.
- The Mississippi River Trail, a self-guided cycling route, extends for approximately 3,000 miles from the river’s headwaters in Minnesota to Venice, Louisiana, near the river’s mouth.
- Nearly all of the lower river’s floodplain, including about 1 million acres of forest, is privately owned, unlike the Upper Mississippi, which includes the 260-mile long Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge.