The fertilizer placed on a field in Iowa eventually has an impact in the Gulf of Mexico, while the disappearing Louisiana coastline endangers the navigation necessary to get the farmer’s crop to market.
Actions taken all over the Mississippi River basin covering 31 states present challenges that aren’t just local because there are ripple effects that can impact large swaths of the nation, requiring a more basinwide approach.
In the beginning steps to address those problems, a committee established several years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Nature Conservancy presented their basin “report card” to the Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association in New Orleans this week in an attempt to get widespread support for proposed change.
The report card from America’s Watershed Initiative issued earlier this year gives the overall Mississippi River basin a grade of D+, largely because there has been a lack of investment in the infrastructure from water quality to navigation to ecosystem.
The lower Mississippi River basin — which extends from Missouri and Kentucky to Louisiana — received the same grade.
Although the lower Mississippi River basin received good grades on recreation, such as hunting and fishing, the overall score was dragged down by low median income, and the poor condition of fish and other organisms in the water.
Other problems identified included long lock delays for navigation; poor infrastructure conditions and maintenance; an increase in the number of people moving into the floodplain relative to overall population change; poor levee conditions; and the small number of communities with building elevation requirements.
The initiative is calling for an annual $1 billion investment in the watershed to help raise the grades outlined in six key goal areas — ecosystems, recreation, economy, water supply, transportation, and flood control and risk reduction.
The report, produced by a collaboration of more than 400 businesses, government, university, nonprofits and other organizations, also suggests using federal funds along with investments from private corporations, local governments, states and interested organizations.
Initiative director Harald Jordahl said the collaboration is of people with an interest in better management of the river and its resources.
“America’s Watershed Initiative is a free-wheeling collection of leaders throughout the Mississippi River watershed working for the future of the watershed,” Jordahl said. “We really think we need to use the information we have to improve the decision-making processes.”
“If we’re managing the river the same way we are today in 10 years, it will not be in anyone’s interest,” added Mark Davis, director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University. “It’s really akin to planning a banquet with a thousand chefs. It’s not going to turn out well unless there is major coordination.”
Steve Mathies, partner with Environ and a member of the initiative steering committee with a long history of working in coastal Louisiana, said the Mississippi River serves many functions — all of which face their own challenges that cross state and regional lines.
“There is no place for us to have these discussions about these competing interests,” he said. “This is the only place we envision bringing those competing interests together.”
While many reports can get put on a shelf, this one is different because it was created by the wide collection of people who want to see changes happen and are willing to do the work, Davis said.
“There’s a status quo in place, and it’s not one that works,” he said.
Funding for the initiative comes from Jordahl’s employer, The Nature Conservancy, along with Caterpillar Inc., the McKnight Foundation and the participating groups.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.