INFRASTRUCTURE: A word that’s finally getting much needed attention. What will all this attention mean for the Mississippi River?
Specific interest groups are already organizing. While the Mississippi River may seem like an automatic recipient for strong infrastructure upgrades, based on the amount of overdue maintenance and repair, all of us working on the Mississippi River should make no mistake that priorities and punch lists will be hotly contested. Unless some unity of opinion is established, we could see a continuation of the same disjointed approach to the river that we’ve seen historically.
With a river as important to the country as the Mississippi, you’d think there would be consensus. But the Mississippi River’s long history of deep-seated neglect manifests itself in not only a lack of consensus, but sometimes very real and entrenched conflicts of interest.
Those who focus on clean water will want money for infrastructure improvements that address municipal water treatment and run-off. Shipping interests will want the improvements that will reduce river traffic congestion and increase reliability. Tourism and community development interests will want money to flow to river front development and public access. Just because there are more dollars for infrastructure won’t lessen the conflict we’ve seen for decades. It might even increase it. That is, unless the various interests begin now to agree among themselves.
Here’s where deliberative dialogue could play a role. Before the political debates get started in Washington and in state capitols up and down the river, stakeholders should come together to decide on the priorities and what we have in common. For instance, building sustainability for the river through infrastructure might be a shared vision. More options for consensus surely exist. But who would convene this diverse group and what would their task be?
Several players come to mind. The Institute for Conservation Leadership has been a convener in the past and knows the deliberative process well. The Nature Conservancy now has a Director of Water Infrastructure within its North America Water Program whose purpose is to focus on national investment on a basin scale. At America’s Waterway, we’ve long advocated the use of stakeholder engagement as a tool to unify the Mississippi River, too. And, the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure has a program piece to all its Envision projects that builds stakeholder values into engineering plans.
Time is of the essence. Stakeholders are already at work on their own pitches for their special needs. But those pitches can’t be assumed to include shared sustainability or other goals necessary in an era of climate change and conflicting perspectives. A unified Mississippi River voice stands the best chance of identifying and reaching achievable priorities for the Mississippi River’s future infrastructure. At its core, an inclusive set of stakeholders is best equipped and stands the best chance of securing long-term infrastructure for a Mississippi River in the 21st century and beyond.