The Mississippi River watershed, which covers 40 percent of the country and includes the Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, Red, and Missouri Rivers, is perhaps our nation’s greatest natural asset. While the river is one big system, we tend to make decisions on critical issues like natural systems, transportation, water supply, recreation, local economies, and flood control in a piecemeal, sector-by-sector, issue-by-issue, jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction decision making for major issues affecting. It’s not working for the river or for people.
A 2009 study commissioned by The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that the business, community and environmental leaders who depend on the Mississippi River watershed recognized the risks to this great resource and called for a shared vision and more united approach to river management. More than 100 organizations met in St. Louis in 2010 to form America’s Watershed Initiative to advance a more collaborative approach. Over the past few years, more than 400 organizations have participated in creating a Report Card for the Mississippi River Watershed, which America’s Watershed Initiative released in St. Louis on Oct. 14.
The report card includes specific information and grades for the five main river basins that make up the 31-state Mississippi River Watershed, including the Ohio and Tennessee River basins. Six goals for the Ohio and Tennessee are measured—water supply, flood control and risk reduction, the economy, ecosystems, recreation and transportation – and the basins received an average grade of a “C” – not the sort of grade you would rush home to show your parents.
Certain categories did even worse than the overall average. The transportation system received a D- and our investment to maintain that system got an F – both grades reflecting poor infrastructure condition and maintenance. Nearly 3 percent of water supply systems in the Ohio River basin reported violations. The ongoing and alarming toxic algal blooms affecting nearly 700 miles of the Ohio River confirms its D rating for water quality and natural systems and are likely a factor in declining participation in outdoor activities and the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.
It is hard to overstress the vital role these rivers play in our lives.
The Ohio River and Tennessee River basins are home to 29 million people and cover parts of 14 states. The landscape is dominated by forests, agriculture, pastures for livestock, but also increasingly suburbs and major cities. River flow is regulated through a series of locks and dams on the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, helping to make it one of the most important transportation corridors in the United States. In addition to providing numerous recreational opportunities throughout the basin, the Ohio provides drinking water to millions of residents.
The Report Card recognizes that importance and calls for continued collaboration and transparent, science-based decision-making among river managers and constituents to address increasing challenges of water scarcity, aging infrastructure, water pollution and floodplain management. It calls for $1 billion of new private and public funding for water infrastructure, focused in ways that provide multiple benefits, such as upgrading navigation locks but operating them in ways that also promote environmental restoration.
And despite the low grades, the report card includes an important and more hopeful message. This project shows us that leaders throughout the watershed care about the future of our rivers and waters. With strong public support and smart reinvestment that links economics and ecology, we can restore a watershed that our children will be proud to inherit.
The new Report Card can be viewed online at AmericasWatershed.org/ReportCard.