Taming mighty Mississippi


Mankind has attempted to tame the mighty Mississippi River for nearly 200 years. However, Mother Nature has often trumped these efforts to tame her river. 

Clinton is one of hundreds of river towns that experience both the wrath and the rewards of this great river. 

Thousands of physical alterations have been constructed along the 2,300 miles of the Mississippi River. The first levee was built near New Orleans in 1717. The great flood of 1927 resulted in shortening and straightening more than 150 miles of the Lower River to reduce flood risk.

Each natural event that causes flooding usually results in new engineering structures that will lessen the impacts of the next flood. Two centuries of altering river flows have made progress in minimizing flood impacts.

The Mississippi River is a wild place. It produces a world class fishery, is an internationally important migratory bird flyway, and contains a diversity of habitats that support a large assemblage of wildlife species. The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge extends along 261 miles of the river and contains 240,000 acres.

The Upper and Lower Rivers are very different. On the Upper Mississippi River, we enjoy lake-like conditions due to the presence of 29 locks and dams. These massive dams manage water levels to maintain a 9-foot navigation channel for commercial barge traffic.

Thousands of smaller wing dams jut out from the shoreline to deflect flowing water into the main channel. Boaters unfamiliar with the river often learn the hard way that these wingdams lie hidden just below the water’s surface.

Lock and Dam 13 is located on Clinton’s north shore below the bluffs at Eagle Point Park. This dam controls water levels in Pool 13 that extends 34 miles to the north. There are 13 large steel gates extending more than 1,000 feet across the river that are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for managing water levels to accommodate barge traffic. 

The lock allows the passage of vessels up and down the river by equalizing the 11 foot difference in water levels above and below the dam.

The Lower Mississippi River is a wilder open river, having no locks and dams, with fast flowing currents. Many shorelines and some channel bottoms are lined with concrete revetment to minimize damage due to the fast flowing river. The dangerous currents are not conducive to recreation which is an important asset on the Upper River.

We enjoy flood protection in Clinton due to the levee built after the 1965 flood. Many low lying areas were devastated with more than $5 million in property damage. The Clinton flood control project extended from 1974-1981 and cost about $30 million for the 8 miles of levee. Keynote speaker Harry Cook stated at the levee dedication “By coming to terms with nature, you have chosen for Clinton a destiny which your children and grandchildren will thank you for.”    

We are privileged to have one of the greatest natural resources in the world being a part of Clinton. The river showcases a nationally significant commercial waterway, a nationally scenic recreation area, and a nationally important wildlife area. 

Clinton is part of an elite group of Mississippi River communities where wildness is still an important asset of our mighty Mississippi.


Ed Britton is a wildlife refuge manager on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and is a volunteer at the Bickelhaupt Arboretum. 

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