What to do about a Failing Mississippi River Grade

This is an old Pogo cartoowe have met the enemyn who’s caption, “We have met the enemy and he is US” came to mind when a report card for the Mississippi River showed a D+ grade for its infrastructure. Ironically, a major newspaper story on spending to protect U.S. infrastructure from cyber hacking appeared the same day.

But over the last decade, congress – OUR elected officials – has deliberately and significantly reduced funding for the upkeep of the river’s infrastructure under the heading of national debt reduction, elimination of “earmarks”, and slowing federal government growth. The result: the river’s infrastructure got failing grades and the country’s security is now threatened.

At the same time, cyber hacking has captured the public’s attention and, with it has come the rise of cyber-hacking blockbusters, compliments of Hollywood’s vivid, techno-driven scenarios. It’s not only movie-goers who see the implications for real life, it’s policy makers, too.

Unfortunately, the visual drama of the Mississippi River’s deteriorating infrastructure is far less compelling. The need for upkeep and maintenance pales in comparison to the episodic cataclysm that can be imagined – and vividly portrayed on the big screen – from cyber hacking. In the former, insidious annual budget reductions slowly erode lock and dam systems one chunk of concrete at a time and in one section of the river at a time. The result is the same, however, as the Hollywood-driven cyber images, but the latter strikes fear in the hearts of legislators and the other is allowed to go on endlessly.

mississippi-watershed-map-200xAmerica’s Watershed Initiative’s Report Card should catch our attention, despite its low visual content and policy-laden language. Make no mistake, its implications are just as catastrophic as cyber hacking…. Maybe more. All it takes is one good snowy winter in the Midwest and the mountain states and “kaw-fluey”, we’ll see those visuals…. Guaranteed.

But we can’t say we haven’t been warned. The tests have been given and the grades are in: weak to poor. There’s work to be done. And AWI says, “it will take river-wide collaboration.” It’s time to heed the warnings and hold a National Dialogue for the future of the River’s infrastructure and other needs… before the Hollywood blockbuster becomes a reality.

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Embracing Mississippi River Tourism

iStock_000004400102MediumLast week’s announcement by European cruise giant, Viking, sent shivers up the collective spines of tourism offices up and down the Mississippi River. The highly successful river-cruising giant will put two cruise vessels on the Mississippi River in 2017, its first North American venture.

This adds to the already huge economic impact tourism plays on the Mississippi River.

A year-old study of the Economic Profile of the Lower Mississippi River, paid for by the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee, showed that outdoor recreation and tourism – two of the nine quantifiable economic sectors the study measured – accounted for over 40 percent of the jobs and over 10 percent of the revenue on the lower river’s economy. The Lower Mississippi River region includes 71,000 square miles and 113 counties in seven states: Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. The Upper Mississippi River Basin Association is currently conducting a similar study that is likely to parallel these findings or surpass them.

Just five years ago, large-scale, overnight Mississippi River cruising was nonexistent. Today two cruise lines offer three-to-seven night cruises complete with on-board historians and accomplished chefs. American Eagle has announced plans to add cruises on the river this year. With Viking adding two new 300-passenger ships in 2017 and four more to follow, tourism on the Mississippi River is exploding.

This industry doesn’t sail alone. Its impacts are far reaching for its many stops along the river. Just as cruises in the Caribbean and in Europe bring tourism dollars to home ports and ports along the way, Mississippi River ports and historic destinations will find river tourists a welcome economic contributor.

Other Mississippi River tourism is exploding, as well. Bicycle trail use and development, for example, is climbing, and the Mississippi River Trail is expanding to meet the growing demand. A 2005 Wisconsin study of the economic impact of multi-day bike trips found it represented between $3.7 and $6.2 million in revenue and had 2,100 participants in the state. The economic impact of bike trails may be even more exponential because it affects small towns in rural areas. For example, Lanesboro, Minnesota saw its commercial sector swell with 10 bed and breakfasts, 16 hotels and inns, 12 specialty retail shops and 10 restaurants when they decided to focus on the tourism potential of expanding bike trails.

These indicators of growing tourist attraction, while welcome, will bring challeges. Infrastructure will need updating. Communities wanting to attract cruise visitors are already lining up with financial packages to make these upgrades. Servicing tourists and visitors – whether coming by boat or bike – is an art form that will need to be learned by local retailers. Local public officials will learn how to juggle the needs of residents with those of visitors. The Army Corps of Engineers will have a new commercial interest making demands on the river’s already frail infrastructure. And, state departments of transportation must seek public and user input to prioritize bike trail development.

One thing’s for sure: these announcements and studies validate the mythical attraction the Mississippi River holds for travelers. More efforts will emerge to bring people onto the great river’s shores and banks. But there will be some catches: How will Mississippi River communities manage this new opportunity? How will states capitalize on the economic opportunity of the resource while maintaining its ecological integrity? How will local offices of tourism cash in on an opportunity that’s river wide so it takes better coordination with neighbors? And, where will the workforce – trail managers, hospitality managers, health care and event managers, even marine terminal operators – come from and be trained?

Let’s be clear, this is a good challenge. It reflects America’s – and even the world’s – fascination with and appreciation for the great Mississippi River. The challenges represented in this opportunity are real and will take leadership. Will the Mississippi River tourism community be up to them?

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Take the Great River Road to Glimpse America

If you want to get a feel for what it means to be America’s great river, travel it via the Great River Road

Great River Road display in Itasca State Park, the Mississippi River headwaters.

Great River Road display in Itasca State Park, the Mississippi River headwaters.

We didn’t do the whole thing, but we got a taste in October when we meandered four of the five Minnesota sections. The breadth of the scenery and disparity of lifestyles were a microcosm of the state and, I suspect, the nation. It was a way to think about the country – just before an election – and take a measure of the River’s mysterious connection to American life. 

The Great River Road itself has a colorful history. 75 years since its presidential inception, it’s had moments of measured progress against a backdrop of inertia. The brainchild of Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior under FDR, it started as a planning board. From 1939 to 1949, it was the subject of congressional study, resulting in a recommendation for a Parkway for the Mississippi River in 1951. The 1956 Federal Highway Act came along just in time to fund it, but it wouldn’t be until the 1973 Federal Aid Highway Act that congress would allocate over $314 million for the Great River Road, $250 million of which was directly allocated to the 10 main stem states.  (Take heart, those working on change for the Mississippi River today!) 

The states took up the task of selecting their own Great River Road routes using federal guidelines. “The Great River Road should be located within designated segments to take advantage of scenic views and provide the traveler with the opportunity to enjoy the unique features of the Mississippi River and its recreational opportunities.” 

So it is today that we have, in most of the 10 Mississippi River states, active Mississippi River Parkway Commissions and a national body as well. Dedicated to promoting tourism, they strive to meet the criteria of the federal guidelines with marked routes, highlighted destinations, printed background material and a web site. In most states, they work with other state agencies such as the highway departments and the historical societies to make the river accessible and to inform the public of its significance.

Taking advantage of this guided experience goes beyond visiting specific locations and tourism though. Traveling the Great River Road, like traveling rivers everywhere, gives authentic glimpses we seldom can see from interstates or in the miniscule media clips on TV or the internet. That we weave together our lives at all is still a testament to the human inclination to live in society and to make it good. And, the Great River Road shows us how the Mississippi River has been and continues to be at the heart of that quest.

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Planning For The Birds


Mississippi River Flyway as Highway in the Sky at National Eagle Center, Wabasha, Minn.

Bird vs. Stadium. The builders of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium forgot to take winged creatures into account when they designed a see-through, glass-plated façade sitting smack in the middle of the North American Mississippi River Flyway. As a dangerous obstruction protruding into migrating birds’ seasonal flight path, it’s an important reminder that the Mississippi River is there for others besides humans.

Nearly half of North America’s bird species and up to 40 percent of its waterfowl spend part of their lives on the Mississippi River flyway, the National Audubon Society calculates. One of the reasons for this is its visibility. There aren’t huge canyons or mountain ranges along the way to obstruct the course from the air. Another reason is the vast crop and forestland through which the Mississippi River passes, offering plenty of “off-road” resting and eating spots along the way.

But birds aren’t the only non-human users of the river. Over 100 species of fish call the IMG_1274Mississippi River home. Of course specific breeds vary according to climate, and the River is currently challenged by the presence of invasive carp. Nevertheless, its role as an aquatic home is substantial.

It becomes even more evident when you consider the impact of the River on the Delta at its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the River provides (or doesn’t provide, depending on how its flow is being managed) the water and filtration making the area one of the most productive seafood resources in the world. The Dead Zone, created by nitrates and other pollutants flowing down stream and into the Gulf and wreaking havoc with aquatic life, is a not-so-subtle reminder that the River’s important life-giving role for fish also impacts us humans.

I’m not sure where the battle between the bird supporters and budget supporters will conclude when it comes to the stadium. But I do know we humans have a lot at stake when it comes to managing the Mississippi River corridor for its value to animals and fish. We may not always be able to see the important link between our behavior and the many purposes the River provides.  But we owe it to the River’s ecosystem to do what we can, to take all its needs into consideration, and err on the side of the River’s role when we can.



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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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