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Upper Mississippi deemed most endangered waterway in the U.S.

Climate change and poor floodplain and watershed development decisions are factors.
Mississippi River at Point Douglas Park in Hastings

Mississippi River at Point Douglas Park in Hastings.

The Upper Mississippi River, a large chunk of which is in Minnesota, has been named the most endangered waterway in the country.

That's according to an annual listing issued by conservation group American Rivers, which placed the section of river that flowers through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri as requiring the most urgent action to prevent future disasters.

The main source of the risk is increasingly severe flooding driven partly by climate change that has led to several extreme floods on the river's upper reaches in recent years.

In its listing, American Rivers cited "more intense rainstorms" contributing to prolonged flooding in the Upper Midwest, and notes that communities along the river are "dangerously unprepared."

"These risks are greatly exacerbated by two centuries of shortsighted floodplain – and watershed – development decisions that are cutting the river off from hundreds of thousands of acres of its floodplain, dangerously constricting the upper Mississippi River, and degrading vital fish and wildlife habitat.

While the worst of the flooding has hit south of Minnesota, in the likes of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, per the Pioneer Press, the river did hit one of its highest levels on record last spring in St. Paul, causing the flooding of several footpaths and streets.

The report notes that the magnitude of major flood events in the Mississippi basin "has increased by 20 percent over the past 500 years," which it puts mostly down to a "combination of river engineering and climate change."

"Throughout the basin, 40 to 90 percent of the land has been developed and almost every river has been dammed, leveed and/or constricted, including the Upper Mississippi itself," it notes.

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What's more, it notes that urbanized areas – particularly those behind levees – are most at risk, which it says will typically most affect communities or color or those on low income.

"Even today, the most effective flood risk reduction solutions, like home buyouts, are not offered to communities of color at the same rates enjoyed by the white population," it notes.

American Rivers is calling for the river to be restored in a way that safeguards communities and infrastructure.

It wants state and federal agencies to coordinate in the development of "a basin-wide water management framework that coordinates river and watershed management actions, ensures vulnerable communities are involved in the decision-making process, accounts for climate change, gives rivers room to flood safely and restores lost habitat."

You can find the full report here.

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