Skip to main content

PapanicolaouThe Mississippi River and its tributaries have provided water, transportation, and sustenance for people living along the water’s edge since well before Europeans set foot in the New World.

A new group is helping make sure that role continues well into the future.

UT and institutions from twelve other states have joined together to form the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Hypoxia Task Force with the aim of reducing pollution and runoff and returning vitality to North America’s greatest river.

“We’re trying to understand some of the dynamics involved in how we got here, what can be done, and what we should stop doing, all while realizing that you have factors like farming and shipping to consider,” said College of Engineering Professor Thanos Papanicolaou. “We have to find the balance.”

Papanicolaou, the Henry Goodrich Chair of Excellence in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, explained that hypoxia—or low oxygen content in the water—is a condition that can rapidly “kill” the river.

To understand it, Papanicolaou said to imagine that the top layer of water is like a lid for all of the water underneath. When that “lid” has low oxygen levels it prevents the rest of the water from mixing, dooming fish and plants below to slow death from suffocation.

“It affects oxygen, it affects temperatures, it affects how substances in the water mix and break up, it really creates a whole slew of issues,” said Papanicolaou. “One of the big side effects is that the good bacteria in the water can’t do their job, so pollution and hypoxia increase even more so.”

The task force estimates that almost 80 percent of corn and soybeans in the United States are produced in states along the Mississippi, as well as a significant amount of pork, making economics play a key role in any recommendations.

Geography plays a part in why UT is getting involved, as well.

Papanicolaou pointed out that most of the studies done of the Mississippi have focused on either the farm states at the far north—such as Illinois and Iowa—or on the states in the delta—such as Mississippi and Louisiana.

“No one has really looked at the middle stretch of the river, and that’s our part to play in this task force,” said Papanicolaou. “With a key component of this study being the impact that dams and locks have on pollution and runoff, and with us having all of those pieces of the Tennessee Valley Authority in our backyard, we have a really crucial role to play.”

C O N T A C T :

David Goddard (865-974-0683,