Several speakers the first day of the Visions of a Sustainable Mississippi River Conference used the word “orphan” to describe the Mississippi River. If you think about it, the Mississippi River is just that: an orphaned national resource and monument, in spite of public acknowledgement of its value to the nation.
How is this so? Some of it’s due to the role the Mississippi River plays as a border to states. It’s easy for state regulators and tourism officials to not see what goes on at the fringe of their state, unless a major city or population center abuts it.
Then there’s the issue of multiple jurisdictions. The Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other regional and federal agencies are divided into districts. They tend to divide the Mississippi River for practical management reasons that made sense in an era when communication was more difficult and expensive. The natural topographical differences of the River contribute to this approach as well.
From my perspective, the answer to the Mississippi River’s “orphan status” is its lack of a constituency willing to advocate on its behalf. When you’re on the East Coast, you see active support for the Chesapeake Bay. Powerful Washington and state officials lend their support to local efforts, and residents sport bumper stickers and Save-the-Bay license plates. The Great Lakes, through a multi-year process to write and pass the Great Lakes Compact, have built a constituency largely because threats from other regions of the country highlighted the value of the lakes as a system.
We can end the orphan status of the Mississippi River. America’s Waterway embodies a plan to build that constituency and engage it via the internet and shared goals and objectives. The process takes all aspects of the River into account. It’s not just about clean water or preserved wetlands, our process seeks to take cultural heritage as well as community development into account. In today’s social networking environment, that engagement can be maintained using the connectivity of the Internet.
The Mississppi River doesn’t have to be an orphan and this conference is demonstrating that there are a lot of people committed to ending that status. Today’s sessions will engage participants as well as experts to explore options for advocacy for the River. Tomorrow, a public policy panel will hear from the conference participants. It is a worthy introduction to a much needed effort.