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Upper Mississippi - A Brief History

The Upper Mississippi River flows roughly 1,300 miles from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to the confluence with the Ohio River at the southern tip of Illinois. The Upper Mississippi River Basin drains approximately 189,000 square miles, including parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. The basin also includes small portions of Indiana, Michigan and South Dakota.

There are 12 major tributaries that feed into the Upper Mississippi River including the Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin Rivers.

More than 30 million people live in the basin and nearly 80 percent of them live in urban areas like Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; St. Louis, Mo., Chicago, Ill.; the Quad Cities, Ill. and Iowa; Des Moines, Iowa; La Crosse, Wis. and Peoria, Ill.

The river basin produces 92 percent of the nation’s agricultural exports, and about 60 percent of all grain exported from the U.S. is shipped via the Mississippi River, along with petroleum products, coal and other cargo. Barge shipping is safer and more affordable than other transportation modes. 29 locks and dams form a stairway of water for safe traffic passage.

There are over 3,000 reservoirs in the basin. The flood storage volumes of 40 million acre-feet would take over three months to flow past St. Louis at average discharges.

The Mississippi River is a migratory flyway for 60 percent of all North American birds (326 species) and 40 percent of migratory waterfowl. The river and its floodplain are also home to 260 species of fish (a quarter of all found in North America), 50 species of mammals, as many as 60 types of mussels and at least 145 species of amphibians and reptiles.

Millions visit the river each year to boat, fish, explore historic river towns, watch eagles or take a scenic drive to a bluff-top overlook. The Corps of Engineers and other agencies offer many recreational opportunities along the river including camping, hiking and water trails. Five National Wildlife Refuges, encompassing more than 300,000 miles of wooded islands and wetlands, protect the river’s resources.