The Mississippi River is 'in great shape' – until it flows through cities and farms

The river is healthy ... until it passes through St. Cloud.

The Mississippi River is healthy ... until it passes through St. Cloud.

That's according to a new report released Wednesday by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The MPCA looked at pollutants and wildlife along 510 miles of the river – stretching from Lake Itasca to St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis – as well as the 20,105 square miles of land and tributaries that drain into the river.

The upper half of the river (see the infographic below) is "in great shape," the MPCA says, thanks to the forests and wetlands in the area.

But then south of St. Cloud – after the river winds through cities and farmland – the river gets cloudy and bacteria-filled because of polluted runoff. Those pollutants include sediment that mucks up the water, nutrients that cause algal blooms, and bacteria that can make the water unsafe for swimming.

And by the time the waterway reaches the Twin Cities, the Mississippi no longer meets water quality standards for swimming, boating or aquatic life.

How this impacts things

These pollutants are a problem, the MPCA says. Not only do they increase the mercury levels in fish (that means people should limit how much they eat), but it also affects drinking water for millions of Minnesotans – and the Americans who live farther downstream.

“What we do on the land is reflected in the water,” MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said in a statement. “This study underscores that point.”

But there are ways to make sure the river gets and stays clean for future generations. The MPCA says it's important to make sure wetlands and forests in northern Minnesota aren't developed and used (they help filter the water, keeping the river clean like it is now). The agency also says we could take more steps to prevent pollution and farmland runoff from getting into the river by adding more buffers, using fertilizer and manure more effectively, and increasing conservation efforts on farm and urban land, the report says.

The MPCA plans to do similar studies to evaluate other rivers in Minnesota, including the Minnesota, Rainy, Red and St. Croix.

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