Mark Twain wrote with more wit when he wrote about a Mississippi River orphan whose trials along the mighty river were emblematic of the trials of a nation at war with itself over slavery and other corrupt institutions.
The National Research Council describes the entire river as an "orphan" in its landmark report, published yesterday, about the ongoing pollution that not only fouls the Big Muddy, but also spills into the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike Huck Finn, no one will be reading the NRC report in literature class, but it also describes a nation unable to come to grips with a national problem on its signature river. The problems plaguing the Mississippi are common to many of the nation's rivers.
The Clean Water Act successfully staunched the flow of sewage and industrial discharges (though a recent U.S. Public Interest Research Group report found that more than 57% of industrial and municipal facilities discharged more pollution than their Clean Water Act permits allowed in 2005). The bigger problem lies in countless small sources of pollution -- primarily rainwater runoff from farms, pavement
On the Mississippi, the problem is the American Heartland: The soil, and the chemical fertilizer used to make it fertile, washes off farms and into myriad streams and rivers that flow into the Mississippi, which dumps its load into the Gulf of Mexico. There, the excess nitrogen from all that fertilizer feeds a bloom of algae so intense that it depletes the water of oxygen, creating a "dead zone" -- the size of New Jersey this year -- that is inhospitable to fish and other wildlife.
"As a result of limited interstate coordination, the Mississippi River is an 'orphan' from a water quality monitoring and assessment perspective," the report states, according to the Times-Picayune. "The lack of a centralized Mississippi River quality information system and data gathering program ... acts as a barrier to maintaining and improving water quality along the Mississippi River and into the northern Gulf of Mexico."
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