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Mayors, Feds Commit To Expand Water Quality Monitoring On Mississippi River

Kate Payne / IPR
Mayors along the Mississippi River want to see more water quality monitoring. They're turning to federal partners to help get it done.

Federal agencies and local leaders are committing to work together to expand water quality monitoring on the Mississippi River. Representatives from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Transportation signed the agreement Wednesday with a coalition of mayors from up and down the Mississippi.

The issue of water quality on the Mississippi is uniting what otherwise might be an unlikely coalition of local leaders and federal administrators. Farm fertilizer and feedlot runoff, discharges from municipal wastewater plants, and contaminants from cities and industrial sites all make their way into waterways, including the Mississippi. Nutrients flowing off farmland can spur algae blooms and disrupt ecosystems up and down the river, threatening source water for the millions who depend on drinking it, and undermining tourism economies that rely on a pristine environment. 

The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a coalition of mayors along the river who advocate on related issues, is organizing this effort to encourage more water quality monitoring. MRCTI Executive Director Colin Wellenkamp says coordination at the local and federal level will ultimtaely help communities better understand what's in their drinking water.

"So we have three federal agencies now that are part of this memorandum of common purpose with MRCTI. And that's a new level of cooperation for water quality on the Mississippi River," Wellenkamp said.

Leon Carl oversees the USGS Midwest Region, and hopes to install water quality sensors on river barges, tracking runoff and other contaminants in a way existing sensors aren’t.

“This is one way that we can detect hotspots. Is there a hotspot coming off a series of field, or a particular watershed, or a particular tributary to the Mississippi River that we would not detect with our fixed gages but that we could detect with that?” Carl said. 

The agreement between the mayors and federal agencies doesn’t guarantee funding. But it’s meant to focus efforts to track what contaminants are in the Mississippi, which is the drinking water source for an estimated 18 million people across 50 cities. 

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter