If a kid brings home a report card that averages a D+, there’s a problem. If the Mississippi River gets a D+ on a report card of its health, that gets pretty scary. But is it scary enough, even with risks of flooding, disruptions to commerce and growing “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, to finally force compromises and changes?
The Mississippi, and the waters that flow into it, including the Missouri River, touch 41 percent of America, from the Alleghenies west to the Rockies, draining all or parts of 31 states. When river water runs peacefully, when levees hold, when grain-loaded barges make good time and water is clean and plentiful for crops and animals and people, life proceeds uneventfully.
However, the locks and dams are crumbling, Gulf waters are suffocating with pollution runoff, development eliminates needed wetlands that help control flooding, and wild weather swings threaten the Mississippi’s neighbors across the land.
The upside is the existence and growing support for the River Watershed Initiative. Since 2010, it has convened partners from government, business, environmental groups, academia and agriculture to examine the problems.
Their findings, recently released in St. Louis as a report card, demand more attention and a lot more money to keep the river clean and productive for everyone who depends on it.
When a kid brings the D+, he should expect some, shall we say, vigorous responses from engaged parents. Grounding. Tough talk. Enforced study habits. A lot more focused attention.
So the question looming for the “parents” who share stewardship of the Mississippi watershed is how vigorous their response will be. What will government, business entities and conservation groups do, and how much money can all contribute to fix what ails the river?
America’s Watershed Initiative seeks a shared vision and integrated management that would replace the current fragmented reality juggled by the Army Corps of Engineers.
And there’s the rub. Who will step up to negotiate between barge owners, who want steady water flow, and environmentalists, who don’t want habitat scoured, and farmers, who want predictable supplies of water at times of drought? Who will stop developers from building or raising levees, choking off breathing room for flooding rivers, and sending floodwater surging downstream where it becomes somebody else’s problem?
As the report makes clear — and as the Great Flood of 1993 demonstrated — levee breaks can cascade into multiple, massive failures. Among the worst-rated aspects of the rivers were the locks and dams, key infrastructure for both navigation and flood control. They got a D-minus.
Parochial interests too often prevent progress. For example, for decades, states have battled over how much and when water should be released from dams on the upper Missouri. The interests of upper river basin states conflict with our middle river basin interests, and both conflict with lower river basin concerns. As global warming worsens, there is more talk of water wars ahead. Drought-ravaged western states covet Missouri River water diversions, making the need for cooperation and coordination even greater.
The poor report card should be a call to action. Costly repairs must be a shared responsibility. Reasonable interests recognize it will take partners from many fronts: taxpayers, private businesses, nonprofits and local interests to successfully navigate a more secure river future.
Elected officials must overcome their tendencies to cater to their local interests and work together to craft reasonable plans to preserve the watershed. It shouldn’t take a disaster to prompt congressional action.
Work must start sooner, not later. Emergency responses to massive flooding are not a fix. The massive “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, a 6,500-square-mile oxygen-deprived area caused largely by agricultural runoff and urban pollution carried by the Mississippi, was larger than expected this year.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay accurately summarizes the dilemma: “A ‘D+’ is really nothing to be proud of, but it does give us direction and it does give us a sense of urgency.”
If officials within all states served by the rivers can devise a compact devoted to repairing and protecting the Mississippi River watershed, the nation will benefit. If they fail, the prospects are truly grim, and the expenses and losses could be catastrophic.