ABOVE: Confluence of Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at Cairo, Ill. (2006 photo courtesy NASA)
COLUMBUS — Locating a national park at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in southern Illinois, western Kentucky and southeastern Missouri could solve a number of problems simultaneously.
William Mitsch, an environment and natural resources professor at Ohio State and director of the Wilma H. Schiermeier Olentangy River Wetland Research Park, said that would allow for seasonal flooding of floodplains to produce a vast wetland, reducing property damage and loss caused by flooding at that site and along the lower Mississippi River watershed.
It could also attract tourism to an economically depressed area and provide educational opportunities about rivers and wetlands.
“That would be the best place for a national river park. All of the bottomland should be a national park,” Mitsch said. “It should not be farm land. The flooding should be allowed to take place there.”
The area he’s pinpointed includes the area where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently breached one of their levees to reduce downstream flooding.
Mitsch likens the concept of a freshwater river park to the Everglades National Park in Florida.
“There should be something equivalent to the Florida Everglades surrounding our rivers, but there isn’t,” he said. “Over time, about 80 percent of the land would be forested.”
Such a park ultimately could help reduce the annual formation of a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico by absorbing and trapping nitrogen and other chemicals upstream, he said.
Nitrogen, a major component of fertilizers, starves water of oxygen. He said the annual runoff from farms into the Mississippi and Ohio River watersheds contributes to a 7,000-square-mile dead zone in the gulf each year, which can’t support aquatic life.
Mitsch’s idea was inspired in part by the Wednesday visit and lecture on campus by Donald L. Hey, co-founder of The Wetlands Initiative Inc. and executive director of Wetlands Research Inc., which manages the Des Plaines River Wetlands Demonstration Project in Lake County, Ill.
In his lecture, Hey proposed formation of a national riverine park along the Upper Mississippi River from Minnesota to southern Illinois.