The Mississippi is a celebrity river, one of our community's claims to fame. But sometimes local residents forget that it's also an important asset for the Twin Cities. The 72-mile metropolitan stretch of the river that was designated as a national park in 1988 is a tremendous resource; if we underappreciate its value, we may also be neglecting its care.

In the first State of the River Report, the Friends of the Mississippi River and the National Park Service's Mississippi National River and Recreation Area teamed up to take a comprehensive look at key indicators of the river's health -- things like wildlife abundance, sediment content and contaminant levels. The report concluded that while progress has been made, there are aspects of river health that are suffering and bound to get worse if not addressed quickly and decisively.

So why should anyone care? For starters, about 1 million Minnesotans rely on the river for drinking water. While municipal water is obviously cleaned and treated, some pollutants are very difficult to remove completely. And water processing is expensive. Minneapolis and St. Paul combined spend $40 million on water treatment each year, a cost partly dependent on the river water quality.

In addition, the river lets urban residents experience the outdoors. We have world-class fishing in the metro Mississippi, and the Twin Cities stretch includes the river's only waterfall (St. Anthony Falls) and only gorge.

The river is also a globally significant ecological system, a flyway for 40 percent of North America's waterfowl. Economically, the river contributes to the vitality of the Twin Cities as an important transportation avenue and as a source of renewable hydropower. Riverfront parks and trails help stabilize property values. River tourism generates revenue and creates jobs.

We encourage local, state and federal leaders to push a new wave of policies to address the negative trends. Individuals can play a part, too, by contacting their leaders and by learning what they can do in their homes, yards and communities to help protect the Mississippi.


Whitney Clark is executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River. Paul Labovitz is superintendent for the National Park Service at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.