Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

The Upper Mississippi, endangered red wolves, & Florida fires

The headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in Minnesota. Credit: Lyndsey Gilpin

As I walked across the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in Minnesota, I couldn’t help but think about the Gulf of Mexico. The water around my ankles was warm like the ocean 2,552 miles to the south. But unlike it, the narrow start of the river was still and pristine, untouched by industry or traffic or noises, disturbed only by the splashing of humans and wildlife. 

On a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, I went with a group of journalists from around the country on a trip through the Upper Midwest to learn about the state of the Mississippi River and its expansive basin. For a week, we interviewed numerous stakeholders who have a responsibility for keeping it viable, economical, and controlled. 

Over the course of a few days, we stood in the damp barn of a large dairy operation and paced the rows of barley cover crops on a soybean farm. I thought of the many rural farm communities I’ve driven past in my lifetime, and knew I’d never pass through agricultural land the same way again. On a tour through a sand mine in Wisconsin, where piles of white sand stood hundreds of feet tall ready to be sent to fracking companies, I thought of Appalachia, of the activists and landowners fighting for peaceful views and clean water, and of miners around the U.S. praying for lucrative job opportunities. When the mine operator spoke of reclamation, my mind wandered through the history of regulation, of promises made, of habitat lost. 

The headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in Minnesota. Credit: Lyndsey Gilpin

I knew traveling through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri—a part of the country completely foreign to me—would help me better understand and report on the health of the southern half of the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast. Agricultural runoff from the Midwest is the primary contributor to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where nitrogen and phosphorous pollution spur algae growth that sucks oxygen out the water, causing fish die-offs and poor ocean health. To find out what it would take to fix it, or at least slow its growth, we went straight to the source: farm country. Curbing this runoff would be a massive feat in a region dominated by the industrial agriculture industry. For instance, more than 85 percent of Iowa’s land is farmed, and the state has seven times more hogs than people.

By the time we hit St. Louis, the headwaters of the Mississippi seemed as if they were part of a different universe. As Boyce Upholt wrote this week in a Sierra Magazine essay on his Lower Mississippi River paddling trip, the river “has been entirely remade, hemmed in by levees three stories tall, bristling with wing dams, its bends paved in concrete.” It has been engineered to serve our industrial and economic needs, although it will never stop putting up a fight.

We heard from many perspectives about the ways people interact with natural resources around them, how we bend and contort nature to our will, and how we try to fix things when those plans go awry. We visited farmers who have shifted their grazing practices and planted cover crops to improve soil health, or recycled water and sand to reduce their usage. We toured human-made wetlands that provide buffers from flooding and restorative habitats for threatened birds and fish. We explored a water management facility to see how nitrates are removed from drinking water. We interviewed mayors, officials, scientists, activists, and community members about how they have adapted to flooding, how they adjust their levees, how they deal when the water inevitably comes in. We stood silently in fields listening to red-winged blackbirds sing and peered through binoculars at bald eagles and herons in the treetops. We canoed on the river through Minneapolis and spent a morning on a pontoon learning how scientists study native plants in a Wisconsin wildlife refuge.

As always, things are more complicated and nuanced than they seem. I expected to see the footprints of industry, but I didn’t expect to be so taken aback by how deeply the agriculture industry permeates everything in the Midwest, much like the coal industry in Appalachia or the petrochemical industry in Louisiana. In some ways, asking independent farmers to make decisions based on the health of the Gulf of Mexico is like asking unemployed coal miners to come up with a new industry for West Virginia.

Toward the end of the trip, while peering out over the edge of Melvin Price Locks and Dam near Alton, Illinois, I watched in awe as the powerful river slammed up against the concrete, a reminder of the lengths we go to to control nature even though it’s impossible, of the power of place, of the way this incredible body of water connects us all. We’d traveled more than 900 miles, and although the clear, clean headwaters seemed distant, the communities all along the Mississippi felt closer than ever before.

Stories worth your time

“As the South goes, so goes the nation.” In Harper’s, Imani Perry muses on writing about the South, and specifically, Alabama. He dissects how he has come to terms with the South’s dark legacies, and how this country abuses Southern states and the people who live in them. “Alabama organizers have literally never stopped fighting,” Perry writes. “But the nation’s eyes haven’t thawed enough to see it.”

WFPL News and Ohio Valley ReSource investigation found that coal ash has contaminated groundwater at 14 Kentucky power plants. “There’s unsafe levels of arsenic, unsafe levels of cobalt, lithium whatever it is,” Abel Russ from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project said. “It’s as plain as day, but the way the rules are written, they don’t have to do anything about it yet.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency gets a lot of flack, but the agency’s administrator Brock Long argues their failure in times of disaster is the product of failures by other parts of local, state, and federal governments. The Atlantic reports how Long says in particular, there are few mitigation efforts to prevent disasters in the first place.

Outside examines ways the West can learn from Florida when it comes to fighting wildfires. The state allowed burns to happen rather than trying to tame them, leading to more biodiversity. “The Thomas Fire burned 280,000 acres in Los Angeles and was front-page news for weeks,” one fire scientist said about the fire that burned 1,000 homes. “In a 30-mile radius around Tallahassee, we burned the equivalent land, and it never made the news because we didn’t lose a single house.”

News flying under the radar

Four southern West Virginia water systems rank in the top ten for the highest number of Safe Drinking Water violations in the country, including for arsenic and fecal coliform levels.

An appeals court halted some construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia because of a water-crossings permit, and now people are calling for the same to happen in Virginia.

The Trump administration proposed to shrink the habitat of the last endangered red wolves left in the wild in North Carolina and give landowners more leeway to kill any that stray onto their private property.

Bayou Bridge Pipeline developers say they plan to complete the Louisiana pipeline by October if a federal appeals court doesn’t halt construction again.

There’s a massive algae bloom in the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida, and it’s moving downstream.