States Working to Protect the Mississippi River

April 19, 2022


Mississippi River

NCEL Point of Contact

Chris Askew-Merwin
Sustainable Agriculture and Water Specialist


This piece was written by Olivia Amitay, NCEL Communications Intern. Olivia is a recent graduate from Boston University where she earned a B.S. in Public Relations and a minor in Environmental Analysis & Policy.

Despite Being Named A Most Endangered River, States are Working to Address the Mississippi River’s Largest Threats

Each year, American Rivers works with grassroots river conservationists to create the America’s Most Endangered Rivers report. This report highlights the 10 most threatened rivers across the country, while also presenting pathways to remediate river health through public and policy action.  

This year, the Mississippi River was reported as the sixth Most Endangered River. 

The Mississippi River is a vital source of ecological, economic, and cultural well-being for the communities and wildlife that reside in its watershed. Increasing rates of climate change and human-caused disruptions of the natural ecosystem have led to intensified flooding events and high levels of nutrient pollution, all of which adversely affect the region’s farmers, ecosystems, and economy. 

To help protect and revitalize this vital river, the Mississippi River Legislative Caucus (MRLC) helps legislators address river health and water quality issues with sound legislation. The MLRC also facilitates collaboration across state and party lines through in-state meetings, alerts and updates, individual outreach, and a regional forum for legislators. 

In order to develop comprehensive strategies and policies to aid the Mississippi River and the communities around it, MRLC focuses on four issue areas: nutrient pollution, soil health, flood resilience, and sustainable agriculture. 

Nutrient Pollution

Nutrient pollution is when an overabundance of nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, enters the water system. High quantities of these nutrients can lead to an overgrowth of algae–known as “blooms”–and decrease the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. The Mississippi River carries an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico each year, which has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey. The MLRC strives to help legislators put forth policies that reduce the amount of nutrient pollution entering the Mississippi River. 

State Action 

  • This year, Illinois introduced H.B.1792, which would create the Illinois Partners for Nutrient Loss Reduction Act. This Act would increase Illinois’ capacity to meet the state’s 2025 milestone to reduce nitrogen in Illinois waters by 15% and phosphorus by 25%.
  • This year, Wisconsin enacted A.B. 727 which is a bipartisan bill that creates a nitrogen optimization pilot program to aid farmers in reducing nitrogen pollution.

Soil Health

Soil health is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Healthy soil increases farm profitability, reduces flood risk and improves drought resilience, improves water quality, recharges groundwater, and improves water infiltration into the soil. 65% of land in the 14 states that make up the Mississippi River Basin is farmland, which underscores the necessity of healthy soil in this region. 

States along the Mississippi River and beyond are exploring programs and methods of increasing state funding for soil health.

State Action 

  • This year, Illinois introduced H.B. 5224, which would create the Healthy Soil Program. Administered by the Department of Agriculture, this program would promote and support farming and ranching systems that increase soil organic matter, microbiology, and water retention to improve health, yield, and profitability. 
  • This year, Iowa introduced H.F. 2150, which would help the governing board of a drainage or levee district establish and maintain healthy practices relating to soil and water conservation and water quality.
  • This year, Illinois adopted a resolution, H.J.R. 0063, that creates the “Illinois Soil Health Week” and “Illinois Soil Health Day.”

Flood Resilience 

Annual severe flooding events in states along the Mississippi River have proven that inland states are a crucial part of the flood resilience conversation. Over the past 10 years, inland states have endured 73% of springtime flood disasters. To combat the ecological and economic effects of flooding, MLRC is helping legislators implement flood mitigation and adaptation practices to establish long-term resilience.

State Action 

  • In 2021, Louisiana enacted H.C.R.82 directing the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development to study water drainage issues in Livingston Parish as a result of Interstate 12 median walls
  • This year, Missouri introduced H.B. 2617, a bill that would establish the Flood Resiliency Act. This act would create a flood resiliency program aimed to increase planning and projects for flood mitigation on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Sustainable Agriculture 

Nutrient pollution and other pollutants from agricultural activities significantly impairs water quality. Sustainable agriculture practices can help improve water quality while also helping to mitigate climate change. Legislators along the Mississippi River are implementing legislation, such as farmer conservation incentive programs, that promote sustainable agriculture and farmer support for veteran, young, BIPOC, and women farmers.

State Action

  • This year, Minnesota introduced H.F. 2720 and S.F. 3271, which support the development of supply chains and markets for continuous living cover crops and cropping systems.
  • This year, Illinois passed H.B. 5201 which creates the Agriculture Equity Commission Act.
  • This year, Kentucky introduced S.B. 53 which allows the Soil and Water Conservation Commission to acquire heavy or specialized equipment and make it available or lease it to landowners and people within the district.

Learn more about the MLRC and its initiatives to support the good health of the Mississippi River here