Mike Valley, who smokes and sells his catches at Valley Fish and Cheese in Prairie du Chien, Wis., recalls bygone days when fishing was a big industry on the Mississippi River.
Today, just a few commercial fishers are left.
"When I was a kid, you could take 50 kids and 45 of them could clean any fish out of the river … and prepare it for the table," Valley said. Today, he bets, there wouldn't be more than two.
The Mississippi River is a big deal. One of the world's great rivers, it hosts an abundance of wildlife habitat, provides drinking water for almost 20 million people and carries more than 500 million tons of freight per year, including 60% of all U.S. grain exports. It also holds an important place in America's cultural history, from the Indigenous communities that built their lives around it, to the development of the Mississippi Delta blues, to Mark Twain's classic tale about Huckleberry Finn's river journey.
As writer Albert Tousley put it in his 1928 book, "Where Goes the River," an accounting of a canoe trip from the Mississippi's headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, "It's all the best and worst of these United States … it is more American than any other thing."
But it seems to elicit less reverence than other iconic water bodies. It doesn't adorn car bumpers or keychains like the image of the Great Lakes. People often view it as a working river, not to be played with, or a source of problems, like flooding and pollution. Worse, they might not think too much about it at all.
That attitude has serious consequences. Although the Great Lakes have benefited for years from a billion-dollar program to protect and restore their health, legislative efforts to set up a similar program for the Mississippi have stalled. Meanwhile, the environmental challenges the river faces continue to mount.
River advocates are finding their own ways to help people connect. Michael Anderson, owner of Broken Paddle Guiding Co., in Wabasha, Minn., likes to think his company has had a small part in changing how the river is perceived.
And he hopes that once people can forge a relationship they'll be able to learn one of the biggest lessons the Mississippi River can teach: That it connects all of us, and what happens in one place has impact downstream.
"I don't think that's a bad thing for us to have a lens beyond the 'me,' beyond what is happening to myself in this moment," Anderson said. "The river is a very literal sense of that."
People lack a connection to the Mississippi River basin
Jessie Ritter, director of water resources and coastal policy for the National Wildlife Federation, said the organization's staff recently conducted more than 70 interviews with people living along the river, including landowners, faith leaders, state agency personnel, nonprofit groups and tribal representatives.
One of their most common findings, Ritter said, was that people don't feel a particularly strong connection to the Mississippi.
She wasn't surprised, and believes that the way the river has been engineered plays a role in the disconnect. Many people who live along the Mississippi, for example, see a levee, not the river itself.
The idea of living in the Mississippi River basin is even more amorphous. All of the rain and snow that falls on a large chunk of the middle of the United States ends up in the Mississippi River, which means activities on that land — like farming and industry — affect the river's health. But many people don't realize it.
In Wisconsin, for example, the majority of the state is in the river basin, not the Great Lakes basin, though the sentimental tie seems stronger to the lakes. Minnesota markets itself as the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," not "the headwaters of the Mississippi."
A recent study out of the University of Missouri School of Journalism asked respondents in the 10 states that border the river how they felt about living in its basin. While about half said it was important or very important that their state is a part of the basin, others expressed apathy or loose personal connections. About 15% said they never think about belonging to the basin.
Farther south, it's a working river, not a sacred place
Ritter's theory, that decades of river manipulation has disconnected people from it, looms large near the mouth of the Mississippi.
Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, oil, gas and chemical plants line the river, an area that environmental advocates call Cancer Alley because of the toxic air pollution. The Port of New Orleans is a bustling transportation hub, connecting U.S. cargo to the rest of the world and vice versa.
All this makes the river unsuitable for swimming and more dangerous for recreation.
In the mind of Louisianans, it's a working river, not a sacred place, said Oliver Houck, a law professor and historian at Tulane University. He believes environmental consciousness takes second place to industry, and that because of how it's been engineered, the river is viewed as dangerous.
"I think it's very hard to have a love affair with the Mississippi River," Houck said.
The Mississippi lacks protections of Great Lakes, other waters
Anderson said he senses a deeper psychological divide — lakes are enclosed and may feel safe to people, while rivers are ever-changing and sometimes flood.
Americans have loved plenty of water bodies enough to save them. In some cases, that's meant forming massive restoration programs with bipartisan buy-in. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, launched in 2010, is widely recognized as a success story, having funded more than 6,500 projects to clean up the lakes. Republicans and Democrats alike have voted to increase funding for the initiative nearly every year since it passed.
The Mississippi has no such effort, and work to create one has lost traction in Congress.
"There's growing recognition that this (Mississippi River) system is not receiving the comprehensive attention that we have for some of our other iconic waterways," Ritter said.
John Anfinson, a Mississippi River environmental historian, said that's had a particular impact on threats to the river. For example, while entities are willing to spend billions to keep invasive carp out of the Great Lakes, he said, it's been more difficult to find the funds to keep destructive fish species out of the Mississippi.
Education about downstream impact could make a difference
Some say more education on the river's history, challenges and opportunities could make people more thoughtful about its future.
Maisah Khan, policy director for the Mississippi River Network, sees the 15% of respondents to the Missouri School of Journalism study who never thought about the fact that they lived in the river's basin as a new audience to be reached.
"A lot of the things that we work on … (are) rooted in the idea that we can't work on river issues piecemeal," Khan said. "The connection (between upstream and downstream) not being there is an opportunity we have to educate."
Ritter, with the National Wildlife Federation, believes that education should also involve highlighting nature-based solutions, in other words, helping people see that the river can be an ally instead of something to be controlled. That could mean restoring its floodplain to once again provide natural protection against floods, she said, or rebuilding wildlife habitat.
She thinks people are hungry for that type of information. In the interviews her organization conducted with river residents, many of them wanted to feel more connected to it.
What they want, and could have, Ritter said, is "a relationship with the system beyond its importance for economy and commerce, but also something that can be enjoyed and celebrated for all of its different values."
This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.