Mississippi River Basin

By Alison M. Jones, NWNL Project Director


Mississippi River Basin map

Click map to see it larger, and for source and copyright.

THE Mississippi River Basin, the third largest in the world and spanning ten states, drains 41% of the lower 48 states of the US, which comprise most of the area between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. The Mississippi has been memorialized in literature (by Mark Twain, William Faulkner, DuBose Heyward, Herman Melville and others) and in song (the Blues tradition, “Moon River,” “Showboat,” Johnny Cash and others). Known today as Ol’ Man River, The Big Muddy, Old Blue, The Gathering of Waters and other nicknames, the name “Mississippi” comes from either the Ojibwe or Algonquin word “misi-ziibi,” meaning Great River.

 

The Mississippi River, beginning in Lake Itasca MN, runs 2,341 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. When combined with its Jefferson and Missouri tributaries the Mississippi River system is the largest in North America and the fourth longest in the world. Two other significant tributaries are the Ohio River from the East and the Arkansas River from the West. The course and deltaic channels of the Mississippi, its tributaries and its distributaries, have been determined and changed over the millennia due to glaciers, earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault and US Army Corps of Engineers infrastructures.

Feeding cattle in field, Ozarks

Originally inhabited by the Ojibwa, Cheyenne, Chickasaw and other Native Americans, the French claimed the entire Mississippi River Basin as theirs, calling it La Louisiane. In 1763 the Treaty of Paris transferred the watershed’s eastern drainage to Great Britain and western drainage to Spain, while guaranteeing forever free navigation rights of the Mississippi River to citizens of the US and Great Britain. In 1803, under Thomas Jefferson the US purchased the western watershed from France who had repossessed from Spain.

 

Mark Twain notably chronicled the soon-to-come steamboat commerce, and the Civil War’s pivotal Battle of Vicksburg brought memorable attention to the importance of river diversion. Cotton industry, aided by levees and irrigation, flourished in the southern basins. Dividing the eastern and western regions of the lower 48 states, the Mississippi River today provides a vital waterway for US commerce and a source of freshwater for industrial, agricultural, livestock and human consumption.

Water plants growing below surface of stream, Ozarks

The US Army Corps of Engineers has played an important role in the recent history of the river as it has designed flood protection infrastructures, diverted the impending flow of the river into the Atchafalaya River and maintained channel depth for shipping. Record devastating floods occurred in 1927 and 1993, followed by recent flooding in 2008. Record low depths occurred in 1988.

Stream, Johnson Shutins State Park, Ozarks

This watershed is vast and its freshwater resources are vital to the security and economy of the United States. No Water No Life has begun its documentation of some of the regions with 2008 expeditions to the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Upon completion of its research, No Water No Life will post on this page a more detailed description of the values, threats and sustainable management solutions within this drainage.
 

Tributaries

  • St. Croix River
  • Wisconsin River
  • Rock River
  • Illinois River
  • Kaskaskia River
  • Ohio River
  • Minnesota River
  • Des Moines River
  • Missouri River
  • White River
  • Arkansas River
  • Red River

Cities in the
Mississippi Watershed

  • Minneapolis, MN
  • St. Paul, MN
  • Quad Cities, IA/IL
  • St. Louis, MO
  • Memphis, TN
  • Baton Rouge, LA
  • New Orleans, LA