Mississippi River Sojourn

I lured my desert dwelling father to Minnesota last weekend with the promise of fall colors and a camping trip along the Mississippi River. “Warm weather,” I said over the phone. “It’s a little cool at night but that means no mosquitoes around the campfire.”

When he arrived on Saturday night, it was cold, drizzly and dark and both my son and I had been sick for almost a week. We postponed our camping trip until Monday, and by then it was sunny, though still a little cool. I’ve visited quite a few of the parks along both sides of the St. Croix River, but had never driven south along the Mississippi on the Wisconsin side of the river. So, we decided on a relatively short jaunt down to Perrot State Park, located about 25 miles north of La Crosse.

Charlie and his Grandpa Bill watch a train pass by while gazing out over the Mississippi River in Prescott.

True to its reputation, the drive south along scenic Wisconsin Highway 35 did not disappoint. We stopped first for a picnic lunch at the Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center in Prescott, where my son Charlie spent his time running circuits on the playground equipment while my dad and I ate cheese and apples and the dog lounged in the sun. As we continued our drive along the river, my father reminisced about childhood trips from Milwaukee to Minneapolis that followed the same route and we talked about changes in the landscape that had happened over the years.

At Perrot State Park, we were lucky enough to get a campsite close to the bathrooms that was also right on a stretch of Mississippi backwaters known as Trempealeau Bay. Our picture perfect view was completed by several species of ducks bobbing in the water and the brilliant array of stars that appeared in the sky that night.

The views of the Mississippi River backwaters from Perrot State Park are beautiful.

Like any good camping trip, however, there were challenges to overcome as well. To begin with, I had somehow neglected to pack flashlights or headlamps in my rush to get ready that morning. Coupled with the fact that the sun is setting so much earlier this month, this left us bumping around in the dark at night. Then, there was our proximity to the river, which seemed great during the day and terrifying at night when my almost two-year old kept disappearing into the shadows of our campsite while he ran around giggling and waving sticks. Even once he was safely asleep in a travel crib inside the tent, I kept jolting awake certain that he had somehow escaped and wandered down to the river. When he rolled over and cried in the middle of the night, I grabbed him out of the crib and snuggled him under my body, smothering him to keep him warm and out of the water. Last, but not least, there was a disconcerting note at the bathrooms that read, “The water here has too high of level of nitrates and is not safe for pregnant women or infants to drink.”

Earlier that day, my dad and I had discussed the impacts of farming on the Mississippi River and the ways that farming in Minnesota and Wisconsin has changed over the years. I told him about statewide efforts in Minnesota to reduce phosphorus runoff to the river and its tributaries in order to restore Lake Pepin to better health. In our part of the country, phosphorus gets the most attention when it comes to water pollution because it is usually the limiting nutrient in freshwater systems, meaning that when there is more phosphorus in our lakes, there is more algae and aquatic plant growth as well.

Signs at the park warned that elevated levels of nitrates in the groundwater made it unsafe for pregnant women and infants to drink.

However, nitrogen impacts groundwater drinking resources, contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and in some Minnesota streams is affecting aquatic life as well. Earlier this summer, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) released a comprehensive study on nitrogen in our waters, in which they found that nitrate concentrations in the Mississippi River increased by 87-283% (depending on location) between 1976-2010. Seventy percent of this nitrogen comes from agricultural sources. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is completing a separate but concurrent effort to revise the state’s Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan, in order to protect groundwater drinking resources. In many agricultural areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin, particularly those with sandy soils and karst topography, both of which are common along the Mississippi River, wells have unhealthy levels of nitrates from fertilizers leaching down into the groundwater.

In next week’s column, I’ll discuss more of the findings and recommendations from the MPCA’s recent nitrogen study, as well as talking about the work that Washington Conservation District is doing locally with farmers to prevent water pollution.