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Our Fewscape

The Upper Mississippi River Basin, a provider for national and global FEW security

The Upper Mississippi River Basin is a breadbasket, biofuel producer, and water tower that is critical to national and global food-energy-water security, but it faces threats that are undermining its resilience.

The Basin spans five states, a variety of climate and soil types, land uses from corn fields to city streets, and layers of political structures for governing land and water issues.

Map of the upper Mississippi river basin

Quick Facts about FEW in the Upper Mississippi River Basin

  • The Basin covers only 6% of the land area in the contiguous United States, but produces 44% of the country’s corn, 36% of its soy, 48% of its hogs, 19% of its dairy, and 22% of its total agricultural exports. (2012 data in USDA-NASS and USDA-ERS, 2017)
  • 40% of the region’s corn goes toward biofuel production. (USDA-ERS, 2017)
  • It is home to first-generation ethanol plants and a strong foundation of biofuel research.
  • It accounts for 26% of U.S. nitrogen and 28% of U.S. phosphorus fertilizer sales. (IPNI, 2016).
  • Three states in the Basin have the highest uses of tile drainage by farmers to control groundwater levels on cropland – Iowa (53%), Illinois (39%), and Minnesota (37%). Source
  • The Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer supplies 630 million gallons/day of groundwater to parts of every state in the Basin, accounting for about 26 million people. Source 1 & Source 2
  • Streams throughout the Basin have high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, according to the EPA’s Wadeable Streams Assessment: 50% of its streams have high nitrogen levels and 23% have high phosphorus levels. Source
  • USGS model estimates show the region contributes 48% of total nitrate pollution to the Mississippi River, which ultimately influences the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Source

Natural Benefits and Tradeoffs between Them

People in the Basin and beyond rely on its grasslands, forests, agricultural lands, and other ecosystems for a variety of natural benefits that are fundamental to human well-being, often called ecosystem services.

These benefits are intricately connected with each other – e.g., water quantity influences crop production, farming practices influence water quality, biofuel crops influence pollinator habitat, pollinators influence crop production, and so on.

While seemingly a land of plenty, the Basin is struggling to meet people’s demands for all of these ecosystem services. Long-term pressures, such as climate change, and abrupt changes, such as floods or legislation shifts, are compromising the ability of food, energy, and water systems to sustain the benefits they provide us.

Here are some examples of tradeoffs and threats undermining FEW and ecosystem security:

  • Manure and fertilizers for crop production have oversaturated soils with phosphorus in parts of the Basin. This, combined with increasingly extreme and frequent rainfall events, is worsening water quality in lakes and streams.
  • Nitrogen applied to land for crop production has compromised groundwater quality, which harms drinking water supplies and contributes to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • A surge in corn ethanol production in 2007-2008 led to cropland expansion on previously unfarmed land, which has decreased water quality and wildlife habitat.

These threats underscore our opportunity for transformation.

A Grand Challenge and Opportunity

The Upper Mississippi River Basin is a critical player in the “grand challenge” of feeding nine billion people globally by 2050 in ways that ensure the long-term sustainability of our planet’s resources.

Now is the time to deepen our understanding of the implications of possible changes affecting food, energy, and water security in the region – and of our choices for meeting national and global goals.

FEWscapes is working to deepen these understandings and support decision-making with insights that increase confidence and accountability in our ability to meet the food, energy, and water needs of current and future generations.

Header image credit Ken Lund