Mississippi River Clean Water Depends on Citizen Support

Last December, a U.S. District Court ruled the Environmental Protection Agency has broad discretion in its application of its Clean Water Act. The upshot: the EPA’s CWA places primary responsibility on states to protect water and the federal government isn’t responsible for setting nutrient criteria for all 50 states.

There were signals ahead of this ruling that litigation wasn’t going to cut it when it comes to setting whole Mississippi River levels for nutrient and phosphorous levels. And if it wasn’t clear last year, the ascension of states-rights advocates clinches the states’ dominance in addressing clean water issues. 

So the federal government appears, in the near-term, to be removed  from cleaning up nutrient and phosphorous pollution in the Mississippi River. What then?

America’s Waterway has always believed the way to a clean Mississippi River was through its residents and stakeholders. It starts with a National Dialogue to create a shared vision for the future of the Mississippi River. After all, how can you decide on cleaning up a river if you don’t know what a clean Mississippi River looks like.

Furthermore, we advocate that a National Dialogue have all the stakeholders — not just those who are available — involved. How do you do that? Large scale dialogues require expertise and equipment. While these cost money, the speed with which deliberation can take place and outcomes can be reached makes this investment small by comparison with years of meetings, repetitive travel expenses, and shifting leadership. And, a National Dialogue’s costs pale in comparison to attorneys’ fees.

What’s to be gained from a shared vision and stakeholder involvement? Capacity, for one thing, and political will at the same time. More importantly, local approaches can be crafted to suit local conditions, another critical feature of a whole-river process. With these essential ingredients, there’s a better way to achieve Mississippi River clean water for the future.

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Merry Christmas Mississippi River Style

The Mississippi River provides a backdrop to many American holiday traditions,  but my favorite is Louisiana’s Christmas Eve bonfires on the levees

The story goes that the bonfires light the way for “Papa Noel”, the Cajun Santa Claus. Others say the practice helped local parishioners find their way to Christmas Eve services. In either case, the inferno-based local tradition has become a Christmas Eve destination in and of itself, lighting the winter skies above St. James Parish 30 to 40 miles north of New Orleans. And, today the fires number 100 or more. It has become one of the few remaining local holiday traditions in this era of sameness. It helps to be off the beaten path and beside America’s enduring river.

Originally, the bonfires were pyramid-shaped cones about 20 feet high. But as tourism has grown, so has the imagination of local fire builders, resulting in elaborate structures resembling cabins, trucks and indigenous figures. In some locations, residents fix up a batch of their favorite gumbo recipe and provide free bowls to visitors. Other locations have incorporated fireworks.

Narrated tours of the bonfires are now available via four-hour and six-hour Gray Line Tours. But I think going early to  communities like Gramercy, Lutcher or Paulina might be a better way to “feel” the tradition. Take the Great River Road ahead of time, and you might even find a good place to take in not only the festivities, but some of the preparations, cuisine and color as well. Who knows, you could find much more than a fiery holiday tradition along the way.





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Mississippi River Stakeholders: Let’s Get Organized

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.   


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Mississippi River as a Connector

Connectivity mapIn a recent New York Times opinion piece, Parag Khanna, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, outlines how social and economic development increasingly pivots around infrastructure corridors rather than arbitrary boundaries like state lines. Without intending to, this theory has lessons for the Mississippi River.

There are a couple of things we on the Mississippi River should note. First, this development is already occurring in Asia and Europe, where intragovernment units are forming around rail lines and rivers.

For us on the Mississippi River, this makes sense. For the last decade, concerns about the future of the Mississippi River have been voiced in interest groups thatMississippi River Watershed copy surmounted geopolitical boundaries  like states, counties and cities. The interests ranged from water quality and transportation to tourism and flood plain management. As meetings progressed and concerns were shared, similar needs rose to the top. Today we have a report card, thanks to America’s Watershed Initiative, measuring the watershed assets of a region that roughly mirrors the Great Plains, Great Lakes and Gulf Coast regions set forward in Khanna’s article.

Second, Mississippi River cities have become one of the most powerful voices for Mississippi River infrastructure. Their collective voices through the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative have done more to raise the visibility of this American economic powerhouse.

Third, Khanna points out urban corridors, while defined by the cities, benefit urban and rural alike. Their routes intersect with small and mid-sized cities, unifying interests in ways states aren’t able to achieve. So it is with the cities and towns of the Mississippi River.

But the troubling part of the article is that the U.S. lags behind many European and Asian countries. This is happening because of the rapidly encroaching role states play in funding – or not funding – economic strategies. In our increasingly partisan climate, we forego national opportunities of the future. In a previous era we had the collective will to fund for such future needs as the federal interstate system. The challenge of the 21st century isn’t the challenge over territory as it was in the 19th century, it’s “… over connectivity – and only connecting American cities will enable the United States to win the tug of war over global trade volumes, investment flows and supply chains.”

We in the Mississippi River are already benefitting from an urban connectivity-corridor model. More energy and public support could be generated for the groundwork that’s already been laid. A National Dialogue for the Future of the Mississippi River, built on even greater connectivity via on-line, telecast deliberation among all regional stakeholders, could bring our corridors closer together still.

The benefits of America’s great waterway are numerous and many of them are protected and promoted by special interests. Enhancing the connectivity role of the Mississippi River throughout the United States will take collective action. Joining forces in inclusive planning will allow those benefits to be more widely applied for the nation’s future, just as they was in the past.





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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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