Dr. Forbes Walker, Associate Professor of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science, was recently quoted in an article in the Washington Post about the American Watershed Initiative’s grading of the Mississippi River Basin. After 700 people across 400 organizations examined the basin’s water supply, flood control, economy, transportation, recreation, and ecosystem health, the basin was awarded the dismal grade of a D+. This should be alarming to us, considering the Mississippi river basin stretches all the way from Montana to Pennsylvania, Minnesota to Louisiana, produces more than half of the United States’ goods and services, and generates a fourth of our hydropower.
Why was the grade so low? Well, the three areas deemed most in need of improvement were Transportation, Flood Control, and Water Quality. Transportation is particularly affected by the crumbling infrastructure of the lock system, which regulates water levels to help ships travel along rivers. Similarly, flood control is negatively affected by the disrepair of the basin’s levee system, combined with rising populations in flood-risk areas. Finally, water quality was found to be extremely poor due to excess nutrients, especially nitrates, which drain into the Gulf of Mexico and cause large dead zones because of Oxygen depletion.
The Gulf of Mexico may seem like a far away environment to Tennesseans, but the study found that the problem was ecosystem-wide. Thus, the solution must start upstream through reduction of fertilizers and soil erosion. Indeed, this is perhaps more important for Tennessee than anywhere else since the study ranked the Tennessee and Ohio river basin the lowest overall in terms of water quality.
“If we can control soil erosion,” Dr. Walker said, “we can make great strides in reducing the loads that are going into the rivers and thereby into the Gulf.”
Check out the original Washington Post article for more details.