Human Setting

Today's human setting is a result of the basin's settlement patterns and the ensuing human development and use of the land and the river system. The original 13 American states claimed lands extending west to the Mississippi River well before any settlers had moved westward from the nation's east coast. As the eighteenth century ended, rapid settlement of the area began by westward movement into the Ohio River basin. The Louisiana Purchase of lands west of the Mississippi River from France for $15 million in 1803 doubled the size of the United States, surely ranking as one of the greatest bargains in history, and encompassed the entire Mississippi basin west of the river including the Missouri, Red, and Arkansas rivers.

This acquisition brought a rapid influx of settlers up the Mississippi River past New Orleans, and the formation of a major port at St. Louis. This invasion and settlement of the American center largely occurred during the first 75 years of the nineteenth century. The basin's estimated population in 1800 was 0.2 million and by 1890 it was 28 million. The Mississippi River and its tributaries were the "avenues" of settlement. They rapidly became the avenues of commerce to handle the flow of goods in and products out. This led to the development of steamboats, and river transport became the first major commercial use of the river, forever establishing navigation as a major priority for the Mississippi River system (Interagency Committee, 1994). In the 1900s, Congress directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge a channel 6ft deep from the mouth of the river to Minneapolis, and by 1950, a system of 29 locks and dams had been built along the Upper Mississippi from St. Louis to Minneapolis (Keating, 1971). In 1945 Congress authorized development of a 9-foot navigation channel for navigation on the Missouri River from St Louis to Sioux City, Iowa, with construction of six locks and dams (Interagency Committee, 1994).

Initial settlement involved farming in the fertile floodplains of the basin, followed by settlement of the uplands, which were largely prairies. Forests were cut to satisfy demands for wood of growing cities and to access new farmlands, an action that changed the landscape and made it more flood prone and erosion prone. Farming in the humid basins of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers required extensive drainage works to eliminate the swamplike prairies, and this also changed the basin's water balance and further enhanced the movement of water and flooding. Farming in the more arid High Plains suffered from lack of water and ultimately led to widespread irrigation using river waters and groundwater. Congress passed the Reclamation Act of 1902 to aid irrigation in the West, and by 1990 more than 30,000 km2 of the Missouri basin were being irrigated, further changing the region's water balance. As farming grew, towns developed along the rivers and the major port cities grew ever larger to handle the commerce of the basin.

By 1880 a settlement pattern involving intensive farming, transportation networks (by then roads and railroads as well as river transport), and cities with industry had emerged. The occurrence of floods within this now well-developed human setting brought chaos—people drowned, crops were washed away, and property destroyed, particularly along the floodplains of the great Mississippi. Action to address the floods of the Mississippi and its tributaries became a major issue for all levels, from local to federal governments.

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