The Mississippi River & Africa’s Congo Share a Lack of Context

Anjan Sundaram weaves a personal tale in his book, “Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo”.  In a recent New York Times article he sums up how “We’re Missing the Story”

 “The Western news media is in crisis and is turning its back on the world,” he writes.  The same is true, for the same reasons, for U.S. stories that don’t originate on the East or West Coasts. The Mississippi River is one vivid example. 

“Bureaus are in hub cities”, says Sundaram and “[ ] the 24-hour news cycles we watch rarely give us the stories essential to understanding the major events of our time. Reporters move like herds of sheep, flocking to the same places at the same times to tell us, more or less, the same stories.” 

You don’t have to go around the world to feel the effects of this trend.  When the Mississippi River floods, reporters and camera crews converge on the scene of destruction for approximately 24 hours to photograph and write about the event. We rarely see coverage of the context of the floods, or the drought or the pollution for that matter. In a nutshell, news is generated based on disasters and emergencies, with a few human interest stories thrown in for “balance”. 

To be fair, there hasn’t been anybody calling on the media to try to give them the context either. In the parlance of the Blogosphere, there isn’t much whole-river content.  The same “silo-based” and place-based understanding of the Mississippi that results in disjointed policy, also results in disjointed information. While we know we need whole-river and watershed-based approaches to the Mississippi River’s management, there are very few groups or individuals generating or offering whole-river or watershed-wide information.  There isn’t a source where this information is collected or made available. A watershed context awaits whole-river and watershed-based news and information. 

There are some notable exceptions. The Mississippi River Parkway Commission provides a context for Mississippi River history, geography and habitat. But to access it, you have to move –either by car or on the internet – from location to location, as their mission seeks to engage people as tourists where they are on the river. The same is true of Mississippi River Trails and their biking and hiking constituents. Exhibits like the Corps of Engineers’ National Great Rivers Museum at the Melvin Price Dam in Alton, Ill.Great rivers museum and in the Lower Mississippi River Museum in Vicksburg, and the Minnesota Science Museum in St. Paul, also tell the whole-river story. But, again, you have to visit to get the information. 

At America’s Waterway, we’re trying to fill this void of whole-river information. We’ve assembled a team of professionals including writers, producers and scientists in preparation for 90-second radio segments about the Mississippi River’s significance to America’s economy, ecology and social development. The team includes civic engagement software, too, to expand the information beyond immediate listeners. All we need is funding to put it together and get it to public and community radio stations near the river and its sub-basins. 

When funded, it won’t immediately fill the void, but it will provide a place for whole- Mississippi River public information. It will be distributed through both traditional and social media. The context for future events and disasters will build over time, as will new understandings as new science and monitoring builds up and reveals more about the river’s impacts on us and our impacts on the river. It promises a starting point for a body of whole-river knowledge that’s publically accessible. It’s the much-needed platform for whole-river context that’s missing with today’s crisis-driven reporting.

 

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Imagining the Internet & the Mississippi River

The Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center just released their 2014 predictions for the world’s internet interaction by 2025.  Their findings: the internet will be invisibly interwoven into people’s daily lives all over the globe. There will be increased access, more relationships, and people will be better informed.

cell-phone-clipart-103It’s time to get on board this progress-train and use it for the future of the  Mississippi River.

One of the most dazzling of the research’s implications for the Mississippi River, “The spread of the ‘Ubernet’ will diminish the meaning of borders, and new ‘nations’ of those with shared interests may emerge and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.”

While the authors are talking governance of nations, the same holds true for the governance of waters.

The marketing representative on the panel assembled by Pew and  Elon gives his take: “From climate change to disease control, from water conservation to nutrition, from the resolution of immune-system-weakness conditions to solving the growing obesity problem, the answer lies in what the Internet will be in decades to come.” The panel also speculated that political awareness and action will be facilitated leading to more peaceful change.

On the Mississippi River, we need to harness these trends. For nearly a generation, we’ve known we needed to overcome jurisdictional boundaries and place-based solutions in favor of integrated approaches. The course of the internet’s development allows us to tap information and engagement to achieve this goal, even for a watershed as large as the Mississippi River’s.

So what’s holding us back? Our work-place systems and our work habits keep us returning to the same old meeting formats in rooms with projectors talking AT those who can afford either the time or the travel to attend, leaving out regional and community leaders with a stake in the River’s future. These behavior patterns are slow to change. Regulators continue to gather input AFTER  they’ve introduced possible change. There is still restraint for tapping public input DURING formative deliberation. This can  and needs to shift to the present for the Mississippi River’s sustainable future.

The tools for integrated watershed approaches for the Mississippi River watershed are available. Inclusive, facilitated, on-line collaboration such as Ethelo and Athenabridge produce boundary-less discussions based on interest areas, rather than geo-political watershed regions. Debategraph, a web-based, collaborative,  idea-visualization tool uses on-line mapping to break down complex issues and arrive at consensus for the future. And the California Report Card enhances timely, direct communication and response between the public and leaders on important issues in that large and complex state. In addition, the engineering professions are introducing a process to ensure infrastructure – both on watersheds and throughout the country – adheres to standards for stakeholder participation to plan for the future. A look at our proposed National Dialogue for America’s Waterway reveals the use of many these combined.

The Pew and Elon Report speculates on how our future will be impacted by the Internet.  Their predictions send a message to those of us working on the Mississippi River to acknowledge these developments and connect and activate them for the kind of integrated water resource management we wish for America’s great river. The future is upon us.

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Sustainable Mississippi River Requires Greater Public Awareness

The chemical spill in West Virginia put a fine point on it. We are all vulnerable when it comes to clean water.  

NAS 2008 Report coverOf course, the Mississippi River is included. Over 50 cities get their drinking water from the Mississippi River. That’s nearly 18 million people. And then there are the birds – 40% of North America’s species – that rely on the River for clean water on their migratory flyway; the animals – 50+ mammal species – whose habitat is impacted by the availability and cleanliness of the River; and the Gulf’s fish and seafood – nearly 1.7 billion pounds in 2000 – whose habitat depends on the freshness (or non-freshness) of the Mississippi River’s water as its sediment filters its way to the sea. 

We know there are threats to this water source and yet we wait for disasters like West Virginia to remind us. 

A few weeks ago I learned about states and cities that are planning ahead.  Minnesota, VirginiaWisconsin and Kentucky have all adopted programs and a variety of funding mechanisms: cell phone charges; sales tax percentages; itemizing payments on utility bills.  Cities like Sao Paulo, Brazil bill industry annually for water cleanup and Bloomington, Illinois relies on grants and partnerships. 

But the scale of the Mississippi River and its watershed challenges even the most innovative of us. 

In the U.S., taxation or fees for clean water rely on the public’s willingness to pay. We’re usually willing to make these payments locally because we understand our stake in the outcome. When we think of a river system as big as the Mississippi River, ways to pay to ensure its quality break down across borders and over long distances. 

This is where increasing the public’s awareness of their stake in America’s great river and its future comes in. Despite regulation and top-down, “command and control” rules for discharge abatement and run-off reduction, only a portion of the Mississippi’s more than 1,500 gallons of water per day are treated, and the hypoxia-induced “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico remains the same or grows. Even with millions of USDA dollars going into the development of new farming practices, it still only addresses hundreds-of-acres here and hundreds-of-acres there. We’re talking thousands of square-miles of the world’s most productive farmland drained by the Mississippi Watershed. 

So while we need targeted efforts and we need funding support on a scale that is the Mighty Mississippi, we won’t get either if the American public doesn’t grasp its stake in a cleaner, more sustainable Mississippi River. It’s time to build that awareness of the River’s role in our country’s and the world’s food security, and its life-giving role in individual communities, and its economic-driver role to the nation. Without that public awareness, the Mississippi River and its water will continue to be threatened until a greater catastrophe than the one in West Virginia comes along.

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Borrowing from Sustainable Agriculture for the Mississippi River

When we think of agriculture and the Mississippi River, we see great barge transports, USDA healthy watershed efforts and silo-framed farms rolling over plentiful waves of grain. We should dig a little deeper for clues agriculture may have for the River’s future. 

Today the sustainable agriculture movement is changing the face of American agriculture. How? They’re doing it through restaurants, school lunch programs and farmers’ markets in every community. In short, they’re engaging the public. 

It wasn’t always that way. The movement got its roots in the mid-20th century in response to modern farming techniques and mechanization. Just as sustainable agriculture started in the 1940s and ‘50s based on science, our understanding of rivers has been greatly influenced by science. We know from researchers that rivers (and lakes and oceans) are ecological systems and their systems require holistic and integrated approaches based on science. 

But sustainable agriculture, along with the environmental movement in general, got a big boost in the 1960s and ‘70s from the writings of popularly read authors Rachel Carson (1962, Silent Spring) and Wendell Berry. Does the Mississippi River have a counterpart? Different authors have written about the Delta (Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell) and the Flood of 1927 (John Barry’s Rising Tide). T.S. Eliot wrote about the River as a “strong brown god”. Samuel Clemmons version isn’t engaging the American public in the Mississippi River’s future, but rather its past. Perhaps Paul Schneider’s  Old Man River will go farther? Time will tell. 

What’s striking is the exponential leap in public support for sustainable agriculture in the last 15 years. The lessons come from moving the sustainable agriculture debate beyond science to the public. For agriculture, this has happened through the expansion and great public acceptance of farmer’s markets and restaurants specializing in “farm-to-table” cuisine. Science still plays a role. But public engagement has grown awareness, acceptance and support exponentially. 

So how do we give the AmGreat_Mississippi_River_Cleanup-thumb-420x262erican public an appreciation for the whole Mississippi River, America’s great waterway?  The answer is to share more about the whole River, its vastness and complexity. Here’s where borrowing from sustainable agriculture comes in handy. In addition to publishing papers on the science of the river and holding public hearings on its infrastructure, take the experience of the whole river to the public. Groups like Living Lands and Waters and the Corps’ “Our Mississippi” staff know this well. We at America’s Waterway plan to combine information, traditional media and on-line engagement around the whole river, too. 

The need is for all of us who work on the River to begin engaging the public in the conversation about this great River and its future. The lesson we need to take from sustainable agriculture is that until the public gets involved, we’ll just be talking to each other.

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Resolved: Increase National Awareness of Mississippi River For More Engagement

New Year imageAccording to “Statistic Brain” an on-line statistics nonprofit, 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions and 38 percent absolutely never make them. This year I’ll be one of the 45 percent and I hope I’m one of the eight percent who achieve their resolutions.

My resolution: Increase national awareness of the Mississippi River so more engagement for the whole River takes place.

There’s no doubt public concern about the Mississippi River is on the upswing. If “Statistic Brain” took a measure of that concern though, it would be place-based and specific to either a location or an issue.  Concern for the Mississippi River as America’s great waterway is still dispersed, diminutive and disorganized.  Usually it peaks in calamity and wanes as the water recedes, only to rise again as the River’s banks overflow.

Other countries have a much greater sense of their rivers and their importance. In arid countries this is due to scarcity. In countries like the Netherlands with an abundance of water, there’s a history of public management out of necessity. America may be unique among developed nations in its national public ignorance of the importance of its great river resources.

So our New Year’s Resolution is to reduce that ignorance and engage the American public in more discussions about its great River. We’re not the only ones of course. The Mississippi Valley Traveler publishes books and blogs about great places to visit on the Mississippi River and the Great River Road has resources to drive alongside America’s Waterway. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers publishes Our Mississippi and a teacher curriculum guide called “Our Mississippi: Educational Activities about the Upper Mississippi”.

But the role of the Mississippi as a national water resource is often overlooked. Its role of providing water and habitat for humans, fish and wildlife is often not well recognized and its transportation prowess, its economic development potential throughout the Midwest and its cultural richness linking both events and the human spirit of the heartland go unacknowledged.

So make your New Year’s resolution to join with us, America’s Waterway, in reducing that ignorance by learning more about the whole Mississippi River and its national impact. Then engage more with others all along the Mississippi River and reclaim it as America’s great waterway. Become one of the 45 percent. Better yet, increase the eight percent to 10 or 12 percent and achieve that goal, too. Start here:

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Building Capacity for Change on the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative marks real progress toward unified approaches for America’s great waterway. At their second annual meeting in St. Cloud, Minn. in June, the mayors expressed their understanding of and commitment to whole-river approaches to the Mississippi River, a significant change from the multi-jurisdictional, place-based approaches.  Hooray!

Mayors press conf. 6-13The mayors’ progress in getting Mississippi River caucuses launched in congress is a major first step and commendable as well. Their Memo of Common Purpose with the Corps is a second great step to that end.  I was pleased and gratified to have had the chance to attend this conference and see this progress first hand.

Still, there is an unaddressed component needed to successfully create and establish a framework for unified approaches to the Mississippi. That essential component rests with the public’s willingness to support a whole Mississippi River management approach, a considerable challenge for any water system let alone that of America’s waterway.

This is where A National Dialogue for the Future of the Mississippi River presents a unique opportunity. We know from history and the study of social change that public support is more effectively gained when the key stakeholders buy into the change. We know that the commitment to seeing that change happen comes when stakeholders see first-hand they have something to gain if the change happens. That’s why the World Wildlife Fund sees stakeholder involvement from across a watershed as essential to integrated river management policy. And the EU Water Framework Directive states, “In getting our waters clean, the role of citizens and citizens’ groups will be crucial.”  The Mississippi River and its watershed need the same.

Momentum is building. We should continue to hold meetings of organizations and leading Mississippi River stakeholders. But it’s time to consider how to include the public in the process. Those organizations involved in the increased river collaboration should consider the ways they can build sustainability into their collaborative outcomes, whether its health indicators for the watershed, compacts for the sake of the Delta or multi-jurisdiction agreements on accessibility.

A National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway goes beyond stakeholder input to stakeholder action. The AmericaSpeaks’ process imbedded in the Dialogue – face-to-face, multi-location, real-time – provides for whole Mississippi River civic engagement that not only creates a shared vision and framework for integrated river decision making, it builds stakeholder commitment.  Furthermore, a National Dialogue could go a long way toward elevating the Mississippi River status as our national waterway throughout the country, thereby expanding public support beyond the River and the Watershed.

It’s an opportune time to include this capacity-building effort as a component in talks throughout the river valley. Without it, proposed approaches may be difficult to achieve and likely impossible to sustain.

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Great News for the Mississippi River at Mayor’s Meeting

Great News: Over fifty mayors from Mississippi River cities and towns have landed a Memorandum of Common Purpose with the Corps of Engineers. Announcing this on Thursday, June 27 at a St. Cloud, Minn. meeting of Mississippi River Cities and Town mayors, the agreement provides that the two – the mayors and Corps — will work together on common river sustainability issues. It’s a step in the direction of unified approaches to America’s great river.

But what does sustainability look like and what will it take to achieve it? Once there, who will continue to ensure that measures put in place remain the right ones and make necessary changes to fit new river basin understandings? Sustainability isn’t stagnant. Indeed, like the river itself, it ebbs, flows, meanders and gets applied in new and different ways by its human residents.

For the mayors and the Corps the first step is agreeing to cooperate. They have many topics in which they share common interests: navigation, agriculture, water infrastructure, recreation, tourism, economic development and jobs. Their agreement sets the precedent for increased cooperation on several fronts and has the potential – because it carries the weight of so many elected officials with their own constituencies – to form the basis for more uniform approaches to America’s great waterway.

The outcomes of this collaboration will need support of their own though. And how does the Mississippi River build a constituency that has a stake in river-wide issues, too. It takes more than organizations and elected officials to address the challenges of integrated river management on a scale as large and diverse as the Mississippi River. It takes public agreement and support for unified approaches.

That’s where the second part of the St. Cloud meeting comes in. Labeled on the agenda as “Partnerships for the River – Mayors Create a Convergence Point”, speakers from the America’s Wetland Foundation and America’s Watershed Initiative will lead the discussion.

Within this framework, America’s Waterway offers a unique vehicle for building that public support as well as river-wide capacity to instill sustainability culturally, economically and socially. Our proposed National Dialogue for the Future of the Mississippi River, as produced by America’s premier deliberative decision-making organization – AmericaSpeaksprovides that vehicle for sustainability of a river as vast and important to the nation as the Mississippi. Our web-based community will make it possible for that constituency to have a place to live and interact on behalf of America’s great river in the future as well as the present. America’s Waterway is a concept that serves the 21st Century needs of the Mississippi, and we stand ready to join with others to ensure that America’s river gains sustainability in this millennium and into the future.

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Mississippi River System vs. Subway System

Mississippi River as Metro MapLast week, while trekking around New York City, I was reminded of this graphic developed a couple of years ago by a clever and enterprising designer. He created a number of these images for iconic –non-train-related – subjects as a kind of ruse and way to get us to think differently than the status quo.

As I rode the subway last weekend, I couldn’t help thinking about the things we take for granted in subways and how different that is for a river, and especially the Mississippi.

As this map depicts, subways take the whole system into account. They’re designed and administered as systems. While the engineers who drive the trains only care about their line, a whole team of people looks at the whole system every day and oversees its interrelated functioning.

The Mississippi River, on the other hand, is managed according to its geographic sections. These sections, more often than not, were developed based on how long it took to ride or drive to a central point. Or they may have developed based on state and city boundaries already in place without regard to the nature of the river.  They most certainly didn’t result from a common vision for how the river was to be sustained for a multitude of purposes.

The other difference is that the Mississippi River is overseen by a multitude of interests: clean water interests, economic and community development interests, transportation, wildlife habitat, etc. If asked, you’d say, but subways only have to perform one function so they can be addressed as a system. However, in addition to providing transportation, subway systems have to comply with air and water regulations, they have community development purposes, whole neighborhoods’ economic well-being relies on their operation. Not so different from the Mississippi River after all.

So the next time you take a train or stand beside the Mississippi River, think about the image above. I hope it will remind you that it is possible to approach America’s great waterway as a system and take all its important elements into account.  What’s really standing in the way isn’t complexity or geography any more. It’s more a matter of political will.

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Four New Year’s Resolutions for the Mississippi River

 This January, it seems to be the fashion to disparage new year’s resolutions. Having said that, where would we be if we didn’t make efforts – resolutions – from time to time to get things done? This year is a fitting year –not withstanding resolution disparagement trends – to take stock and make at least four resolutions for the Mississippi River. 

Resolution #1: Avoid Mississippi River decision making on a location-specific basis and without a whole-River framework. Make this the year that we actualize what we know about the science of rivers-as-water-systems and apply it to America’s great waterway. 

Resolution #2: Adopt new technologies for Mississippi River decision making and leave behind the entrapments of the “usual suspects” and the expense of meetings where participants hear from “experts” but don’t get to take any action. Technological teamwork tools exist and it’s time to put them to use. 

Resolution #3: Ensure that all stakeholders and voices are accounted for when making decisions about the Mississippi River. After all, the Mississippi is America’s river – economically, ecologically and culturally – and plans for its future need to incorporate the various interests or they won’t be lasting or effective. How is this possible? Take a look at the work of AmericaSpeaks, the country’s foremost convener of 21st century town meetings® that invariably build agreement around action plans. Their process is the basis for our National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway

Resolution #4: Focus on the future and don’t rehash the past. The past is where ill will resides. Allowing it into the discussion of a future plan reminds participants of fatal failures. Focusing on the future allows creativity, enables more parties’ participation in the discussion, and makes exploration of real solutions possible, regardless of regional considerations. 

As we head into 2013, expectations for collaboration have been raised throughout the watershed. Climate change and other forces have wreaked havoc on the river for two years in a row. The political system in Washington looks less and less capable of taking on large decisions on its own. And, several organizations have recognized the necessity of balancing competing economic, ecological and cultural priorities in any plan for the River or its watershed. 

Perhaps the research of Stephen Shapiro, author of “Goal-Free Living” and Opinion Research Corp., combined with the wit of www.thepessimist.com, summed it up best: “45% of Americans usually make New Year’s Resolutions, yet only 8% achieve their goals. 38% of Americans refuse to make any resolutions and are 100% successful at achieving the goals they refused to set.”

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