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Put your feet in the Mississippi River

Up and down the Mississippi River, barge captains nervously navigate historically low waters, which persist despite the storms accompanying Hurricane Isaac.

An Oct. 3 article from WREG Memphis warns, “low water river travel dangerous,” and a glance at the article’s contents reveals that in this instance, river travel means barge travel.
A stretch of the river near Greenville has been intermittently closed since mid-August when one such vessel ran aground, with millions spent in increased shipping costs as water levels remain low (a 1-inch drop in water level translates into a 17-ton cargo reduction).

These stories surrounding the drought, like most national news coverage surrounding the lower Mississippi, emphasize the river primarily as a function of commerce.

The importance of the river as a shipping channel is indisputable, yet failing to appreciate the river as a water source as well as a diverse habitat harms both the people living in the river basin as well as the larger economic system paradoxically dependent on the quality of this river system it often undermines.
In other words:  The American economy needs the river yet refuses to acknowledge it as anything other than a conduit for commercial resources.

Environmental policy governing the river largely mirrors American environmental policy on a grander scale:  Situations considered threatening to commercial resources receive the most priority.

Consider the federal government’s policy towards invasive Asian carp.
Funding of federal carp prevention programs primarily focuses on carp removal in the upper Mississippi and carp prevention in the Great Lakes; the area boasts a $7 billion fishing industry threatened, as carp out-compete native species for food.
The species already thrives on the lower Mississippi following Mississippi floods allowing its escape from catfish ponds in the 1990s.
Regardless, federal funding to eradicate the species prioritizes commercial fishing areas while neglecting areas used for transportation purposes.

There is nothing wrong with preventing carp from entering the Great Lakes, just as there is nothing wrong with a consideration of economic factors in an environmental analysis.
What is troubling is the underlying assessment of the Mississippi River, and the American environment as a whole, as merely a tool to acquire capital.
We should be concerned about the ecological health of all parts of the river, not just those requiring health for commercial purposes.

Generally speaking, economic pursuits favor short-term reward while environmental interests more often consider long-term consequences.
This is certainly the case with the river, as efforts to control and maintain navigation channels for shipping and agricultural purposes occasionally result in catastrophic flooding, harming humans and the larger environment.

Does this mean we can somehow return the river to an original, untouched state?
No. Prior to European settlement, American Indians utilized river mud and cane in the Mississippi River for damming purposes, and prior to human settlement, ecological events consistently changed its landscape (and continue to do so).
The point is not to focus on a return to a pristine condition but rather to raise awareness of the river as a diverse habitat as well as a water source and recreational area.

The river is more than an interstate system, and continuing to regard it that way will have serious human and environmental consequences.

Meghan Holmes is a second-year graduate Southern studies student from Arab, Alabama. You can follow her @styrofoamcup.