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Mississippi River Water Quality and the Clean Water Act: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities
nel and its floodplain. There are fewer backwater areas and islands than along the upper river and fewer opportunities for river-related recreation. Moreover, the lower Mississippi River’s larger flows and dangerous currents and eddies inhibit river-based recreation and impede water quality monitoring. These upstream-downstream differences affect the nature of water quality problems and the extent of water quality monitoring along the length of the river.
Mississippi River water quality is affected by land use practices, urbanization, and industrial activities across its large drainage basin. Many of these activities, including those that take place hundreds of miles away from the main river channel (or mainstem), can degrade Mississippi River water quality. The establishment of cities and commercial activities along the river has contributed to degraded water quality through increasing pollutant discharges from cities and industry. Congress first enacted the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) in 1948. Congress amended the FWPCA repeatedly from 1956 on; however, substantial amendments in 1972 created the contemporary structure of the act, which acquired the name Clean Water Act in 1977 amendments. An overarching objective of the Clean Water Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.
The Clean Water Act has achieved successes in reducing point source pollution, or pollution discharged from a discrete conveyance or pipe (e.g., industrial discharge or a wastewater treatment plant), but nonpoint pollution, which originates from diffuse sources such as urban areas and agricultural fields, has proven more difficult to manage. Despite improvements since passage of the Clean Water Act, the Mississippi River today experiences a variety of water quality problems. Many of these problems emanate from nonpoint pollutant sources. Although the Clean Water Act can be used to address nonpoint source pollution problems, its provisions for doing so have less regulatory authority than its provisions for addressing point source pollution.
This report focuses on water quality problems in the Mississippi River and the ability of the Clean Water Act to address them. Data needs and system monitoring, water quality indicators and standards, and policies and implementation are addressed (the full statement of task to this committee is contained in Chapter 1). The geographic focus of this report is the 10-state mainstem Mississippi River corridor and areas of the Gulf of Mexico affected by Mississippi River discharge. Water quality in the Mississippi River and the northern Gulf of Mexico, however, is affected by activities from across the entire river basin. Comprehensive Mississippi River water quality management programs therefore must consider the sources of pollutant discharges in all tributary streams, as well as along the river’s mainstem. This report therefore also discusses landforms, land use changes, and