The Mississippi River originates as a tiny outlet stream from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. The Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB), which encompasses both the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya River Basins, is the third largest in the world, after the Amazon and Congo basins.
Prior to the Louisiana Purchase, the Mississippi River acted as the western border for the United States.
Over the years, traffic on the river has caused increased bank erosion, turbidity, sediment resuspension, and disruption of native species habitats.
The Port of South Louisiana, which stretches 54 miles along the Mississippi River, is the largest tonnage port district in the United States, moving some 233 million short tons of cargo in 2008. During a meandering 2,350 mile journey south to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River is joined by hundreds of tributaries, including the Ohio and Missouri Rivers. Parts or all of 31 states plus two Canadian provinces drain into the Mississippi River, totaling 41% of the contiguous United States and 15% of North America.

The water way was first used for trade with Indian tribes when fur pelts were floated down the river from Ohio. The increased amount of river dredging, levee building, and construction that comes along with this traffic impairs aquatic life in many ways by disturbing their habitat. Water from parts or all of 31 states drains into the Mississippi River, and creates a drainage basin over 1,245,000 square miles in size.
Once steamboats were invented, the Mississippi River became an important mode of transportation that revolutionized river commerce. Over time, the character of the old river meanders and floodplains have been modified for millions of acres of agriculture and urbanization. Before reaching the Gulf, the Mississippi meets up with its distributary, the Atchafalaya River. Many of the original freshwater wetlands, riparian zones and adjacent streams and tributaries along the Mississippi have been disconnected from the river by levees and other engineering modifications.

This has caused a loss of habitat for native plants and animals and has reduced the biological productivity of the entire river basin. The convenience of a trustworthy mode of transportation and a constant water supply encouraged agriculture, industries, and cities to spread to areas along the river.
Productivity from these areas resulted in large amounts of nutrients being discharged from the river system into the Gulf of Mexico.

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