Mississippi and Water – North America


Even the river’s resident literary laureate, Mark Twain, noted how much of the 2,320-mile Mississippi’s finest landscape has been long overlooked as our collective gaze has been fixed upon the river below St. Louis. In 1886, he told the Chicago Tribune, “Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new. There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages—everything one could desire to amuse the children. Few people ever think of going there, however… We ignore the finest part of the Mississippi.”

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The Mississippi River and Tributaries project was authorized by the 1928 Flood Control Act.  In the wake of the devastating 1927 flood, it was deemed necessary to put into place a comprehensive, unified system of public works within the lower Mississippi Valley that would provide unprecedented flood risk management and an equally efficient navigation channel.


There is so much to consider along this great American waterway as it courses through 10 states—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana—it would seem easy to overlook a few pieces. Yet, the connectivity of the river that drains 41 percent of the continental United States and carries more water than any other American river remains its most critical component.

Native Americans have lived along the Mississippi River since at least the 4th millennium BCE, including the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Quapaw, Osage, Caddo, Natchez, and Tunica in the Lower Mississippi, and the Sioux, Sac and Fox, Ojibwe, Pottawatomie, Illini, Menominee, and Winnebago in the Upper Mississippi. The river provided transportation, clean water, and abundant food, including freshwater mussels and fish.

The richness of resources proved equally tempting to European settlers who first learned of the Mississippi from Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1541, followed by French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette who traveled south down the river in the 17th century. Soon after, the race between countries to settle the river’s shores led to conflict and eventual development. Britain, Spain, and France all laid claim to land bordering the Mississippi River until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Following the United States victory over Britain in the War of 1812, the highly coveted Mississippi River officially and permanently belonged to the Americans.

Mississippi River


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The Mississippi River is one of the world’s major river systems in size, habitat diversity and biological productivity. It is also one of the world’s most important commercial waterways and one of North America’s great migration routes for both birds and fishes.

Native Americans lived along its banks and used the river for sustenance and transportation. Early European explorers used the Mississippi to explore the interior and the northern reaches of what was to become the United States. Fur traders plied their trade on the river and soldiers of several nations garrisoned troops at strategic points, at various times, along the river when the area was still on the frontier.

White settlers from Europe and the United States (and often their slaves) arrived on steamboats dispossessing the Native Americans of their lands and converting the landscape into farms and cities.

Today, the Mississippi River powers a significant segment of the economy in the upper Midwest. Barges and their tows move approximately 175 million tons of freight each year on the upper Mississippi through a system of 29 locks and dams. It is also a major recreational resource for boaters, canoeists, hunters, anglers, and birdwatchers and offers many outdoor opportunities.

The Mississippi River is the second longest river in North America, flowing 2,350 miles from its source at Lake Itasca through the center of the continental United States to the Gulf of Mexico. The Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi River, is about 100 miles longer. Some describe the Mississippi River as being the third longest river system in the world, if the length of Missouri and Ohio Rivers are added to the Mississippi’s main stem.

When compared to other world rivers, the Mississippi-Missouri River combination ranks fourth in length (3,710 miles/5,970km) following the Nile (4,160 miles/6,693km), the Amazon (4,000 miles/6,436km), and the Yangtze Rivers (3,964 miles/6,378km). The reported length of a river may increase or decrease as deposition or erosion occurs at its delta, or as meanders are created or cutoff.

As a result, different lengths may be reported depending upon the year or measurement method. The staff of Itasca State Park at the Mississippi’s headwaters suggest the main stem of the river is 2,552 miles long. The US Geologic Survey has published a number of 2,300 miles, the EPA says it is 2,320 miles long, and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area suggests the river’s length is 2,350 miles.

Another way to measure the size of a river is by the amount of water it discharges. Using this measure the Mississippi River is the 15th largest river in the world discharging 16,792 cubic meters (593,003 cubic feet) of water per second into the Gulf of Mexico. The biggest river by discharge volume is the Amazon at an impressive 209,000 cubic meters (7,380,765 cubic feet) per second. The Amazon drains a rainforest while the Mississippi drains much of the area between the Appalacian and Rocky Mountains, much of which is fairly dry.

At Lake Itasca, the average flow rate is 6 cubic feet per second. At Upper St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, the northern most Lock and Dam, the average flow rate is 12,000 cubic feet per second or 89,869 gallons per second. At New Orleans, the average flow rate is 600,000 cubic feet per second.


The watershed for the Mississippi is even more impressive. A watershed is all of the area from which water, both above and underground, drains to a single location. The Mississippi watershed includes all of the land from which the water drains down through the delta to the mouth of the river in Louisiana and on to the Gulf of Mexico. It includes 31 U.S. states and two provinces in Canada and in total covers an area of 1.2 million square miles. This represents 40 percent of the 48 states.



Agriculture – Aerial view of a farmstead and contoured corn and alfalfa fields with the Mississippi River in the background / WI – nr. Kieler.

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Mississippi river project – River of Life – History

A 15-minute video covering information about Upper Mississippi River history, river navigation, locks and dams and the locking process.


Harnessing The Headwaters — First Dams on the Mississippi


Barge entering Lock and Dam 8 Mississippi river


Mississippi River & Ohio River


The Importance of the Mississippi River

R. King Milling discusses The importance of the Mississippi River on the USA


A Mississippi River Journey—Headwaters to Delta—in five minutes


The Mississippi River is a giant river that provides abundant resources. But, how big is it, exactly? This animated map shows the scale of the Mississippi River and its drainage system in perspective.

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Mississipi (Golden Memories Tour Fiji) – Toni Wille (Feat. the voice of Pussycat)


Pussycat – Mississippi 1975

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