[Except where noted, all data are taken from the National Park Service's document entitled "General Information about the Mississippi River" and from the video produced by the St. Paul, Minnesota Port Authority entitled "Mississippi - the Working River".]

The word itself comes from Messipi, the French rendering of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe or Algonquin) name for the river, Misi-ziibi (Great River) [from Wikipedia]

At the headwaters of the Mississippi, the average surface speed of the water is near 1.2 miles per hour—roughly one-third as fast as people walk. At New Orleans the speed of the river is about 3 miles per hour. A raindrop falling in Lake Itasca would arrive at the Gulf of Mexico in about 90 days.

River length is a difficult measurement to pin down because the river channel is constantly changing. For example, staff at Itasca State Park, the Mississippi's headwaters, say the Mississippi is 2,552 miles long. The US Geologic Survey has published a number of 2,300 miles (3,705 kilometers), the EPA says it is 2,320 miles long, and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area maintains its length at 2,350 miles (or about 4,100 kilometers).

At Lake Itasca, the river is between 20 and 30 feet wide. The Mississippi is widest just downstream from its confluence with the Missouri River (near Alton, Il.) where it is nearly 1 mile across.
[Note: In the first mile of the river, just out from Lake Itasca, there were places where I could touch both banks of the river with my canoe paddle, certainly less than 20 feet in width -- G.H.]

At its headwaters, the Mississippi is less than 3 feet deep. The river's deepest section is between Governor Nicholls Wharf and Algiers Point in New Orleans where it is 200 feet deep.


The elevation of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca is 1,475 feet above sea level. It drops to 0 feet above sea level at the Gulf of Mexico. More than half of that drop in elevation occurs within the state of Minnesota.

Sediment Load
The Mississippi carries an average of 436,000 tons of sediment each day. Over the course of a year, it moves an average of 159 million tons of sediment. Averages have ranged from 1,576,000 tons per day in 1951 to 219,000 in 1988.

The Mississippi flows through or directly borders these states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

More than 170 bridges (automobile, foot and railroad) span the Mississippi River.

Watershed Area
The Mississippi River Basin or Watershed drains 41% of continental United States. Thirty-one states and two Canadian provinces are included in the watershed. The total area drained by the watershed is between 1.2 and 1.8 million square miles.

Water Supply
Communities up and down the river use the Mississippi to obtain fresh water and to discharge their industrial and municipal waste. We don't have good figures on water use for the whole Mississippi River Basin, but we have some clues. A January, 2000 study published by the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee states that close to15 million people rely on the Mississippi River or its tributaries in just the upper half of the basin (from Cairo, IL to Minneapolis, MN). A frequently cited figure of 18 million people using the Mississippi River Watershed for water supply comes from a 1982 study by the Upper Mississippi River Basin Committee. The Environmental Protection Agency simply says that more than 50 cities rely on the Mississippi for daily water supply.

Locks and Dams
There are 29 total between Minneapolis and St. Louis. The lower 27 are numbered, with Lock and Dam Number One by the Ford Bridge between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Two more were belatedly added in the 1960s in Downtown Minneapolis. Since "One" was already assigned, these two became the Upper and Lower St. Anthony Falls Locks and Dams. The majority of locks are 100 feet wide, wide enough for double-wide barges. Only the three upper most locks in Minneapolis and St. Paul are 56 feet wide, room enough only for single-wides. The need to break down double wide barges is costly and time-consuming.

For nearly 200 years agriculture has been the primary user of the basin lands, continually altering the hydrologic cycle and energy budget of the region. The value of the agricultural products and the huge agribusiness industry that has developed in the basin produces 92% of the nation's agricultural exports, 78% of the world's exports in feed grains and soybeans, and most of the livestock and hogs produced nationally. Sixty percent of all grain exported from the US is shipped via the Mississippi River through the Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana. In measure of tonnage, the largest port in the world is located on the Mississippi River at LaPlace, Louisiana. Between the two of them, the Ports of New Orleans and South Louisiana shipped more than 243 milliions tons of goods in 1999. Shipping at the lower end of the Mississippi is focused on petroleum, iron and steel, grain, rubber, paper and wood, coffee, coal, chemicals, and edible oils.

The Mississippi River and its floodplain are home to a diverse population of living things:

River Traffic
To move goods up and down the Mississippi, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a 9-foot shipping channel from Baton Rouge, LA to Minneapolis, MN. From Baton Rouge past New Orleans to Head of Passes, a 45-foot channel is maintained to allow ocean-going vessels access to ports as far upstream as Baton Rouge.

Towboat Statistics

Related Facts

Mississippi River Resource
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