After the Flood; Engage Public for Future Mississippi River Management

Friday, May 18th, marks the one-year anniversary of the Mississippi River’s high water mark in Vicksburg during the Flood of 2011. While people in Vicksburg are still recovering, the anniversary reminds us of the River’s force and determination to flow where it wants.

It wasn’t just Vicksburg that got hit last year. River experts cite the 2011 Mississippi River floods as the most auspicious since 1927. While they prompted questions about flood plain management and river engineering, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers is on track to put back the pieces exactly where they were, funding permitting. The usual Mississippi River Commission meetings in four river locations have been held to take public input. And other public comment events are planned. But, the Corps takes the force of the River and its potential for flooding into account from an engineering perspective. Where does the complexity that is the Mississippi River – its natural ebbs and flows, its interconnection between nature and society, its impacts on farmlands and forests, country sides, cities and confluences – fit into the Corps’ mathematical and scientific engineering process?

Ultimately, the drama that is the Mississippi River is a human drama as well as a natural one. Just ask the folks in Vicksburg.  Data from all the various human realms – culture, community and commerce – need to be incorporated along with science and engineering. But how can the decision-makers take all these forces into account in an integrated way and not get bogged down by the sheer enormity of it all?

America’s great waterway needs a whole-river perspective and a data-gathering capability now available through software used in other complex planning challenges. A whole-river perspective would allow specialists and place-based decision-makers to leave their “turf” and “comfort zones” behind and apply their expertise in a more future-focused, whole-watershed way. The integration of data is achievable today if old ways of gathering public input – such as place-based public hearings – are set aside in favor of technological tools that allow more people to have more input in an accountable way. The tools are available, but who has the mandate to put them in play on behalf of a whole watershed system the size of the Mississippi River?

Since the Mississippi River’s impact on the country’s drinking water, food supply and economy is nearly unfathomable, it would seem the American public should play a prominent role in deciding the River’s future management. The Mississippi provides drinking water for more than 50 U.S. cities, and its watershed produces the majority of corn, soybeans, sorghum, grain, cotton, livestock and poultry grown in the country. Then there’s its impact on the Louisiana-Texas Gulf –one of the most productive fisheries in the world. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are dependent in some way on the River, including manufacturing, shipping and tourism, as well as fishing and farming.

So instead of scientists gathering with scientists and engineers gathering with engineers to research and issue policy papers and blue prints for the future of the River, why not take advantage of some of the public participation methods already being used for other planning purposes and in other countries? Why not truly seek public input that’s representative of all the stakeholders on the Mississippi River and use the technology and internet-based tools to enable citizens to have a voice in the River’s future in a productive way?

As this anniversary passes and we go back to life on the River as usual – until the next great flood – those wrestling to find solutions for the Mississippi River Watershed would do well to look beyond the place-based approaches of the past. No one denies the need for public input. But the ways to gain the public’s support and understanding have improved. The public’s expectation for its involvement in solutions that affect them has expanded… exponentially. Now is the time to take these changes into account and make use of them for greater public participation in planning for the Mississippi River’s future. America and its great waterway will be better off for it.

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