A Plea to EPA from the Mississippi River Valley

Written by John Ruskey. All paintings © John Ruskey

John Ruskey describes himself as a “worker bee in the colony of his Queen – the Lower Mississippi River.”  He owns the Quapaw Canoe Company and is on the Mississippi River Network steering committee.  John has written Wild Miles and Rivergator: Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi River.  In 2019, he received the Noel Polk Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters: Through his writing, his music, his watercolors, his environmental efforts, his work with young Mississippians, and his knowledge of Mississippi’s great river.

EDITOR’S NOTE: John’s Quapaw Canoe Company is a NWNL partner. Our website has a July 6, 2014 Mississippi Delta interview with John titled Paddlers Perspective; that features more of his paintings; and on July 24, 2018, NWNL ran a blog by John on Viceroy butterflies in the Mississippi River Basin.  Also, for further background on Waters of the US Rule (WOTUS), see our NWNL NEXT_GEN BLOG: Analysis of the Clean Water Act [Dec 18, 2018.]

This essay is part observation, part experience, part activism, part poetic sharing. I am a creator type, not categorically oriented. I am more directed towards the flow of things, the endless motions and patterns expressed and re-expressed throughout our universe, all best seen in the world’s waters.  

My watercolors are inspired en plein aire along the Mississippi or Gulf of Mexico. Most of my subjects are birds sketched this winter. Why birds?  During this time of year, the avian world is alive throughout the Deep South, wintering and remaining active in ways they cannot up north.  Birds are now threatened by pollution in the air, food sources and water.  

We are all birds of a feather.  We all breathe the same air, we all drink the same water, our hearts are all connected. When I say “we,” I mean all creation:  all 5 million known species.

All of these species, including humans, need clean fresh water. To that end, many of us in the Mississippi River Basin have signed a plea that the EPA reinstate the Waters of the United States Rule [aka, Waters of the US] that was so hard-won over 20 years of decision-making and meetings with scientists, farmers, other stakeholders and stewards:  We, the people of the Mississippi Valley, require the EPA to continue to defend the Waters of the US rule, ended by the Trump Administration last month.  [https://www.change.org/p/trump-epa-reinstate-waters-of-the-united-states-rule]

Waters of the US addresses 60% of US bodies of water, and protects drinking water sources for about a third of the USA.  The Mississippi River is formed by thousands of smaller streams flowing into it  We need Waters of the US for the health of our families, communities and future. It was issued under the 1972 Clean Water Act, which gave the federal government broad authority to limit pollution in major water bodies – like the Chesapeake Bay, Mississippi River and Puget Sound, and their streams and wetlands.

I personally drink the water of the Mississippi River and live along one of its tributaries. My work is inextricably linked to the health of the river.  I am a canoe builder and river guide. I paddle with 12 other “river rats” in the same pursuit.  I am just one of 66 million US citizens in this watershed. The Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico where another 23 million US citizens are affected.  

The 2019 die-off of dolphins, oysters and shrimp in the Mississippi Sound is just one example of a compromised Mississippi River. We will all suffer greatly with increased pollution if Waters of the United States Rule is not reinstated. The primary threats are industrial waste, raw sewage and farm chemicals.

That is the basis of our request to the President and the EPA: Please do the right thing for the health of our Mississippi River (and all other rivers and freshwater streams and wetlands). Reinstate Waters of the United States Rule — for our children, our grandchildren and all generations to come.

Nothing is perfect in a democracy.  I feel for our landowners who care about their land and want to do right for future generations. Yet farmers complained that WOTUS was overly complicated, bureaucratic and overreaching — probably a case of the few ruining it for the many.  

Baby Dolphin and Leopard Frog

I don’t want to see conscientious farmers and business owners suffer from strict regulations; yet I worry about what long-term affection corporate landowners have for the land?  Usually corporate interests begin and end with the bottom line  But, we as a people will all suffer from those few who flagrantly pollute our waters. So we need to write tough laws, such as Waters of the US to protect the many from the few. 

Many news stories are out there, replete with conflicting opinions. Google Waters of the US to see. Read stories from both sides for a balanced understanding. It seems farmers are particularly upset about overwhelming paperwork and bureaucratic hoops in WOTUS.  Surely, smart legislators and policy wonks can clean that up. No one likes being told what to do; but in a democracy, there is no such thing as total freedom. Laws exist to ensure the most benefit for the most people- and clean water is paramount to a healthy life for everyone.

Last month I was struck by the New York Times saying that even the EPA Scientific Advisory Board found no justification for removing the Waters of the US Rule: “The E.P.A.’s Scientific Advisory Board, a panel of 41 scientists responsible for evaluating the scientific integrity of the agency’s regulations, concluded that the new Trump water rule ignores science by failing to acknowledge watershed systems.” The authors found “…no scientific justification for excluding certain water bodies from protection under the new regulations, concluding that pollutants from those smaller and seasonal bodies of water can still have a significant impact on the health of larger water systems.”

As of February 6, 2020 , 1,179 signatures were on our petition to reinstate WOTUS. They represented the Upper, Middle and Lower Mississippi River; many Mississippi tributaries including the Vermilion, Missouri, Wabash and Platte; as well as other rivers around the country, including the Columbia, Colorado and Rio Grande. 

Rivers connect us all. The waters of the world connect us all. Below are excerpts of some emotionally-poignant comments and heart-felt testimonies that support our cause.

I am a hydrogeologist, signing this because I know that every drop of water that I, all my family, and all my community drinks moves down small drainage ways and into wetlands and creeks before becoming part of our water supply. The quality of the water we drink is in large part the sum of all the rural, ephemeral streams that feed our reservoir. We want our water clean.

My body is 60% water. The water I drink comes from rivers and ground water…. I want it to be clean.

I’m speechless. Why would the ***Environmental Protection Agency*** decide to RELAX regulations that keep water clean?


Water is life to every person, plant and animal. It’s the blood of Mother Earth. Protect Clean Water!

Our home should be treated as sacred. We have not been good stewards of this land. It is time to stop the damage and move into a cleaner, healthier future for all creatures on this earth. No one owns the right to destroy her.

My family has a sandbar named for them. My grandfather was a Colonel in the Corps of Engineers. The river is in my blood. Trump doesn’t even realize what this means. It’s just dollars and cents to him, instead of climate and sense. I want to leave my granddaughter a clean waterway. These rollbacks on EPA regulations are disasters for our grandchildren.

I use the waters almost daily. I travel miles by our waters weekly. I know them and I love them.

I grew up at the headwaters of the Mississippi. For many from my community, clean water is not only vital for our health but it is our culture and way of life.

The waters of the Mississippi River are my lifeblood. I play in the water. I work on the water. I drink the water. I bathe in the water. I ponder by the water. I build my life around the water. Technically, it comprises about two-thirds of my body, but it even floods the entirety of my spirit.

It is easy to look at America’s amazing streams today and forget their condition before the Clean Water Act. A nation that agreed on very few things during the height of the Vietnam War agreed on one thing: We all need an ample supply of clean water to go about our daily lives. The ultimate sources of all streams are those that only flow after it rains and those potholes and wetlands that only discharge after heavy rains. Just like the veins in our body, you cannot the sever the small from the large and expect the body to live. 

Water is to life as the air we breathe. All living things depend on clean water. We all live downstream!

The time to deepen our nation’s commitments to clean water is now. Any moves (like this one by the current administration) which deter or deregulate us from doing everything we can to protect and promote clean water is irresponsible…. We need bedrock federal regulations like the Clean Water Act (and the Waters of the US rule). Narrowing the scope and not applying Clean Water Act protections to certain tributaries, adjacent waterways, many types of wetlands and intermittent streams is simply NOT grounded in a fundamental understanding of water (hydrology) and flies in the face of a great depth of scientific research … in Water of the US. 

I like to swim wherever I am…. Not being able to swim would be almost as bad as not being able to breathe. (It should be a basic human right!). 

Am I for clean water? Yes. Do I believe having the EPA oversee a government program will work? Nope. Explain how the EPA will prevent massive flooding like we’ve seen over the last 2-3 years. More waste goes into the rivers that way than any other. Do you really want the government to take control of your water? I’d rather put the money and time in talking to companies that provide fertilizer to help them with better product

The Mississippi River migratory flyway has existed for thousands of years and now that wildlife is threatened.

These waters are our commons. Headwater streams, ephemeral creeks, wetlands, marshes, major rivers don’t stop and start neatly at the boundaries of private and public land, or state or county lines. Policies that protect our Waters of the U.S. should be informed by the science of how healthy rivers, wetlands and underground aquifers are all connected. And those tiny little headwater creeks with only intermittent flows are perhaps the most important and most vulnerable of all. Science, data, evidence. …. We need all of it.

To read more comments, go to our petition asking the EPA and the President to Reinstate the Waters of the US rule!  Thanks for reading. Thanks to our partner No Water No Life for the chance to share news and views from the Lower Mississippi River.

Sincerely yours, in service of the River, John Ruskey

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