We Have to Stop Meeting Like This

Email and Twitter pages last month yielded an assortment of people attending meetings for parts of the Mississippi River. Their purposes and agendas were as varied as the River itself. People in Stearns County, Minnesota adddressed a vision for 31 miles within their sight. A noble endeavor that — while highly localized — is not unlike what could be done for the whole Mississippi River. The Upper Mississippi River Basin Association devoted three days in Illinois to their section of the Mississippi River. The Army of Corps of Engineers and state departments of transportation, of course, held numerous meetings focused on specific issues that pertained to a section of the River. This is business as usual as it concerns the Mississippi River.

But, at the same time, several research and high-visibility organizations are calling for the Mississippi River to be treated as a whole water system. Organizations as seemingly disparate as the Army Corps of Engineers and The Nature Conservancy are among those calling for wholistic approaches to the Mississippi as a system. The National Academies of Science has convened more than one panel that has recommended a whole-system approach to America’s Waterway, as well. So it occurs to me, “How do you start talking about the whole Mississippi River, when so many people are tied up in meetings for parts of the River?”  The answer I’ve come up with is…  “We have to stop meeting like this.”

Of course I don’t mean calling a hault to all the forward motion these many worthy organizations are making. However,  it does mean dropping the usual agendas that are locally or regionally focused. It does mean stopping business as usual and turning attention in a new, whole-river system direction. The organizations currently in place would need to put a moratorium on their own objectives for a while. People used to addressing their issues in a set format around commonly understood goals, would have to take a look at new goals. And patterns of ingrained behavior would have to take a pass for several months.

This is how change happens.  The need to come together with new partners and in new settings is compelling enough to stop business as usual.  New ways of looking at old problems must be explored and adopted and that takes a different framework. And, a willingness to put aside accepted patterns — not without its unsettling implications — has to take hold.

In November, I watched people from all over the U.S. do exactly this. 46 organizations with missions addressing different aspects of Autism came together in 15 locations to create an agenda for adults with Autism. The people themselves were stakeholders and not necessarily organizations. But the organizations made a commitment of people and resources for a year of planning and a day of multi-faceted input. AmericaSpeaks – with technology and expertise at facilitating public policy input at the grass roots level – managed the process. At the end of a day, a set of actions for the future was produced. In two months, more in-depth priorities and actions will move these initial findings forward. And, invigorated participants have been energized on behalf of the outcomes. It was stimulating just to watch.

The same process can work for the Mississippi River. A National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway stands ready and waiting for use as a vehicle for the creation of a whole-River approach to the Mississippi River. It won’t be easy. Some organizational practices will have to be put on the back burner temporarily. But it is what it will take to unify the  Mississippi River and start addressing  the River as a system instead of  just meeting the needs of one region or section at a time.

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Chesapeake Bay Strategy Offers Context for Mississippi River

In declaring the Chesapeake Bay a national treasure and committing to a robust clean-up effort, President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency are creating a policy context for the futures of great American water bodies. “This is the broadest and most publicly accountable cleanup effort ever seen on the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

While the legislation will be in public comment stage until May, Executive Order 13508 set the tone last May. The draft strategy released this month addresses not only clean water initiatives, but those that would address treasured places, protect wildlife and fish, and climate change impacts.

The most interesting feature of the strategy, from the perspective of other great American water bodies, is the emphasis to empower local efforts because “local governments, watershed organizations and residents have a great interest and ability to restore the environment.”   That’s for sure.  This incorporates a key component of any public policy  — the grass roots.  The draft strategy apparently outlines a Chesapeake Conservation Corps, too, that would be pursued to increase citizen stewardship and engage people in protecting local waterways. This, too, speaks to local citizen involvement.

We applaud this effort to get people involved with the Chesapeake as their waterway. But if this is to be a context for other great American water bodies, why not tap into citizen involvement in a more engaging way as the strategy and legislation are being created?  We know that human beings are more effectively engaged if they feel a sense of ownership. That sense of ownership should be cultivated early in the policy development stage and not wait until the policy is about to launch. We know that the Mississippi River, another great American water body, has many residents interested in its future, and we think engagement starts with building a shared vision for that future.

The premise of a partnership between local governments, people and the federal government isn’t new.  And no doubt a project-oriented vehicle for citizen involvement is a great step toward citizen engagement.  But it comes as an adjunct to federal action.

At America’s Waterway, we’re anxious to see the residents of the Mississippi River — from all walks of life including government, science, economic development and arts and heritage — have a say in the actual policy development through a National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway. Facilitated by AmericaSpeaks, it taps a proven methodolgy for capturing grass roots sentiment and enables it to form the basis for comprehensive approaches to the future.

If you have an interest in seeing more citizen involvement in the federal plan for the Chesapeake, comment at the web site linked above. If you think citizen involvement in planning for great American water bodies — or for any water shed you love — is important, comment on this blog and join with us in this effort on behalf of America’s Waterway.

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Mississippi River Waterfronts Add Up to More than Dollars and Cents

Riverfront developments up and down the Mississippi River add more value to their communities than just dollars and cents. One reason is that River planning – when done right – is a tool for civic engagement. 

But it goes beyond mere participation. Every person along the Mississippi River has an emotional tie to the River. For some it’s economy-based; for others environmental. For others still  it’s culture or tradition. For some it’s recreation and active access to the River. It’s these feelings and connections to the River that enrich and expand the planning process. Residents’ input allows riverfront developments to be more textured, multi-faceted and supported than past projects and developments were without public input.

And it’s happening all along the River. Whether it’s Memphis or St. Paul; New Orleans or Dubuque, the River captures the hearts and minds of local residents. That plays out in festivals, fundraisers and formalized community conversations. All of these activities capture and convey shared ideas and values for the way the community wants to relate to the Mississippi River. As time goes by, these shared values take root and make it possible,  at the local level, to formalize these perceptions in riverfront development or redevelopment.

Collectively, these developments — and the communities they represent — show us the dynamic nature of the Mississippi River. While there is no such thing as a national Mississippi Riverfront, a mechanism exists to create the same kind of engagement  for the whole River that riverfront developments are creating for parts of the River.

If you’d like to know more about riverfront developments, click on the communities listed above and on the October 2009 edition of River Currents. If you’d like to know more about the National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway, check that out as well at www.americaswaterway.org. Most important, if you believe it’s time to start this process and move forward with a vision and agenda for the whole Mississippi River, contact us at alewis@americaswaterway.org.  Leave a comment here, too, and start the dialogue.

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Art and Architecture Beside the Mississippi River

One of America’s most highly acclaimed theaters strikes an impressive pose on the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.  Jutting out over an old stone arch bridge and a dam, and sitting beside the newest river bridge replacing the Interstate 35 bridge that  collapased two years ago, the Guthrie Theater pays homage to the natural power and beauty of the Mississippi River by projecting its own modern architectural and theatrical version of strength and culture.

Designed by Jean Nouvel and built in 2006, the renowned theater has transformed a backwater area of the River from a dying industrial wasteland to a vibrant recreational, residential and commercial district. This big blue block of building is not without its critics, but for lovers of the River, it presents a unique perspective both visually and culturally. Of course it is home to some of America’s best theater. But it also presents — through its unique architectual design — the opportunity to see isolated pictures of the River as well as a panoramic schematic of the River’s drama. The beauty of nature and the beauty of performing and architectural art intersect here to underscore the values each offers the people who live within their visual reach.

This recent development on the banks of the Mississippi reminds us that the River is not just a source of water and transportation. Its size, hydro power and commercial transportation capacity are not its only large attributes. More and more, the Mississippi River is being used as a focal point for community development that is more ecologically sound than the industrial economic development of the last century.  A number of communities have recognized the potential of waterfront development on the River banks that already exist in their communities. Slowly and deliberately, they are reclaiming access to the River in noninvasive ways — such as the development in Minneapolis — where parks, walkways, theaters and museums form the core of a new neighborhood and new retail and restaurants. It’s an example being emulated in small towns and urban centers all along the Mississippi River. The drama of the Guthrie Theater is not replicable in all communities, but each River town has a way to capitalize on their culture and development in relation to America’s Waterway. Minneapolis offers just one of many models. We’d love to hear how your community is doing their community development around your town’s relationship to the Mississippi River. Leave a comment.


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Here’s To Your Health, Mississipppi River Basin

Thank you Secretary Vilsack for $320 million to improve the health of the Mississippi River Basin. As an Iowan, you obviously get that the whole Mississippi River needs to be addressed instead of one town, state or region at a time. $320 million is a nice way to jump start what is recognizably a major effort. Continue reading

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How is the Mississippi River Like a Puzzle Box Cover?

Over the years I’ve been involved in numerous campaigns to obtain the public’s support. From environmental to health care issues , economic impact statements are always a key to making the case for public support.

Oddly, when it comes to the Mississippi, we don’t have centralized, River-wide data to make that case. It occurs to me this may well be one of the reasons the Mississippi continues to be undervalued by the nation. It’s not too different from trying to put together a puzzle without the benefit of the whole picture.

What would the economic picture for the Mississippi look like? There’s the obvious and the not-so-obvious information. When we think of the economics of the America’s Waterway, we logically expect data on shipping. More than likely this would be a calculation based on tons shipped and costs of goods. It might even involve a comparison with other shipping methods such as highways and air transportation.

Tourism is the second obvious economic factor on the Mississippi River. Tourism destinations are used to evaluating their economic impact, so a base of information probably exists. But, in the case of the Mississippi River, tourism’s economic impact would have to include how far tourists traveled to see the River, the number of people traveling the Great River Road and the numbers of people spending time on the River as a destination. It becomes complicated fast, but maybe the Misssissippi River Parkway Commission could begin collecting and publishing their data as a start.

Then there’s the not-so-obvious valuation of the Mississippi River as a natural resource. Often I think we say this is incalculable. But that would be a “cop out”. The fact is in America we don’t respond to threats to  natural resources until we put a valuation on them. Fortunately — or  unfortunately —  this is the American way. So where would we start?

One place that’s already started is in agriculture and academia. Their assessments use crops and seafood. Presently they focus on impacts of the dead zone. While this is valuable information — and great for making the case against nonsource point pollution — it only begins to assign an economic value to the Mississippi River for the country.

Another valuation that could be timely — and might even have started — is the economic impact the new hydropower experimentation will have on energy saving in the U.S. Called hydrokinetic power, a collaboration of the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research is evaluating this ultra-new technology and its impact on the Mississippi River. Since they are just newly formed, I wonder if they could take on some of the documentation — especially in the hydrokinetic realm — of economic impacts?

These economic factors are all pieces of an extensive puzzle. And the puzzle pieces – like those in a jigsaw puzzle — are individually small and seemingly disparate. But when they all come together, the economic picture they present is not unlike the box cover we need to put a jigsaw puzzle together.  Without that box cover, we’re just sorting pieces according to similarities we see in sizes and colors. We need to start building that boxcover framework for the Mississippi, if we are to make the case that the whole river is truly connected.

Please comment here if you know of research being done on econmic impacts along the whole Mississippi River corridor or even in your own region. Help us build the boxcover.

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The Wild Rice Moon Shines on the Mississippi River

Wild Rice is Mah-NO-min in Anishinaabeminowin.  This is the Ojibwe language, the Native American tribe that predominates in the northern-most section of the Mississippi River. The min part of the word rhymes with “bit”. It means seed. The first part of the word is a contraction for Manido, spirit-giver of the traditionally important and sacred food grain.  Manomin gave its name to the moon (month) of harvest, typically the end of August, early September in northern Minnesota: Manominikw Giizis, the month when it was harvested. Manomin is upon us near the headwaters of America’s Waterway.

This is the month of wild rice harvest on the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota. For the Ojibwe, it’s a sacred and traditional time. For those of us along the Mississippi near the border with Canada, the Wild Rice Moon signals the change of seasons. And so it is this year, as the summer comes to a close and canoes can be seen being poled through the rice paddies that form a barrier to the higher reaches of the River’s headwaters.

This morning the local radio station, KAXE, carried the story of the wild rice harvest and its importance in today’s Ojibwe culture and economy. The spokesperson for the White Earth Reservation told of the Ojibwe’s effort to recast an economy based on natural resources such as wild rice. The Mississippi River starts within the boundaries of the Leech Lake Reservation, another Ojibwe center where ricing is part of a Native economy and part of a way of life.

The Wild Rice Moon will be in full force this Friday.  Its strength and presence are already making themselves known throughout the woodlands. The moon’s fullness offsets the rapidly paling leaves, as summer turns to autumn and the Ojibwe and others seek to capture the last rays of summer inside the kernels of rice that fall heavily into canoes and other soundless water vehicles. Even the Mississippi, at its heart, seems to be closing a chapter and moving into its slumber, soundlessly and with only the fanfare of the moon.

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The Mississippi River and America’s Pioneering Spirit

Today I return to the northern part of the Mississippi River. Last week, I looked at the Mississippi River from its middle section. The River looks very different physically in these two locations. But one thing that Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri share when they look out at the Mississippi River is their tie to America’s pioneering experience.

The Missourians take a more overt approach to this. The museum at the base of St. Louis’ arch celebrates the role this community played in the westward expansion of the United States. The exhibit pays homage to the explorers, both Native and European, who risked life and limb to explore uncharted territories. While not overtly about the Mississippi, you understand that this region of the country is intensely proud of the gumption and guts it took to make the westward trek. It is part of America’s character and it started — or so they claim — here on the banks of the Mississippi.

Today that pioneering spirit is being carried forward by local institutions like the Lewis and Clark Community College – aptly named for renowned American explorers – as it works with other research and education institutions as a part of the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center.

And in the northern section, those of us who have known this River for decades are familiar with its tales of exploration by voyageurs and Native Americans. We know its tie to our development first as a source of timber for urban expansion in the 19th century and then as a vehicle for commerce as the nation expanded.

In festivals all along the watery artery, the riverboat days are celebrated for their tie to a bygone era. Some times we forget that that this was not only a poetic era in terms of travel, but a way for a nation to link itself across a broad territory. Some times the links were short – as from St. Paul to Des Moines. Other times, the connection went throughout the ten state corridor. But this became an avenue of ideas and trade not unlike the connectedness of the Internet today. And certainly, no less pioneering.

So as we work together to discern a vision for the future of America’s Waterway, the Mississippi River, I hope we will include the link the River provides to an element of the American spirit we still appreciate today. Let’s hold on to and update that part of America’s character that’s associated with discovery, meeting challenges and linking communities –  and celebrate it as inherently a part of the Mississippi River today as well as its past.

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Reflections on a Confluence

Confluence can mean a couple different things.  It often pertains to a literal flowing together from several sources. Then it can mean the coming together of  people as in an assemblage or congress. And in the case of rivers, it’s used to pertain to the merging of more than one tributary in such a way that they become one physically and take on new characteristics.

Interestingly, last week’s Visions of a Sustainable Mississippi River Conference took place near the great confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers being celebrated and documented with a new  National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. At the same time, the conference itself was a confluence —  bringing together people from different locations and vantage points — to  share ideas about the Mississippi River, its ecological, economic and cultural values.

The people at the NGRREC, including the partner institutions of Lewis and Clark Community College, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne and the Illinois Natural History Survey were great at the confluence thing. They appear to be used to partnering, so bringing together many people with a wide variety of expertise was executed professionally. Even more important, the process maximized the sharing of ideas and the written delivery of those ideas to a panel of policy makers at the conference’s conclusion.

However, the vision part of the conference was more complicated.  As one who has helped numerous organizations struggle with their vision, either to accomodate a new direction or to transition an organization, I knew it wouldn’t be easy.  And the conference seemed to agree because after an hour and a half of trying to state a vision, one of the participants voiced the obvious, “Visions are better left to a long-term, deliberative process. We can’t do this in a morning or with just these people in the room.”

That’s why it was heartening to hear Brigadier General Michael Walsh, head of the Mississippi River Commission and head of the Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi River Valley state his view that the Mississippi River needs a 200-year, unified and multigenerational vision. What I didn’t hear was how he plans to secure that vision. An op-ed in this morning’s New York Times  by James Fishkin makes the case for deliberative processes that ensure that all interested parties are in the room.  I would add the involvement of river residents on a representative basis to ensure not only a vision, but the development of an involved and engaged constituency. 

No one seemed to dispute the need for a Mississippi River Vision. Granted, it would be hard to argue with someone like a Brigadier General when he says he thinks something’s needed. But I don’t think he’s alone. Let us know what you think by commenting here.

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Making Mississippi River Sausage

Participants in the Visions of a Sustainable Mississippi River got a taste of sausage making on the second day of the conference when the focus turned to policy recommendations for the future of the River. While it wasn’t pretty, as with sausage making, the outcome offers public policy approaches to managing the Mississippi River as a whole — environmentally, economically and culturally.

Today, the conference turns its attention to those policy recommendations. A panel that includes representatives from congress, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency will hear the collective suggestions of the panels and participants here at the conference. I don’t expect it will be as exciting as the town hall forums on health care, but there is reason to hope the proposals from the panels on the Economic Value of the Mississipppi River, Flood Management, Ethanol Prodution and Water Quality will feed into a growing momentum for wholistic approaches to the River in the future.

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