The Mississippi River churns past 124 towns through 10 states on its way to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. The mighty river generates more than $496.7 billion in annual revenue and supports 1.5 million jobs, according to the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative.
The river basin and its tributaries span 31 states and cover one-third of the United States. “The Mississippi is tied to a 15,000-mile inland waterway system,” Paul Kemp, a former LSU research geologist told Fortune in 2015. That system of rivers reaches from Montana to Pennsylvania, making the Mississippi vital to shipping and trade.
Every American’s life is touched in some way by this great river.
With President Donald Trump planning $1 trillion in infrastructure investments, 18 mayors from cities along the river, including Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant, were in Washington last week to argue for the Mississippi.
At a news conference Thursday, they made the case for a $7.93 billion investment to help restore the river’s floodplains and ecosystems and upgrade aging locks. The mayors also urged Congress and the Trump administration to strengthen federal programs related to the Mississippi that are run by the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of the Interior and Army Corps of Engineers.
“President Trump won America’s heartland by promising to rebuild our communities and infrastructure, and now he’s in a position to deliver on that promise,” Mayor Constant said in a written statement.
The mayors’ group argues that investing in the Mississippi River will pay dividends to the economy. If locks function better, there would be fewer shipping delays on the river. Also, FEMA investments in flood mitigation projects reduce disaster costs substantially. The group wants the mitigation effort fully funded at $100 million. The portion of the budget was cut in half for 2017.
“The incredible economic benefits of the Mississippi River extend far beyond the basin. The federal government must invest in protecting and bolstering the river to ensure that we are securing this priceless resource for future generations and maximizing its economic potential,” St. Paul, Minn., Mayor Chris Coleman said in the statement.
Much of the $7.93 billion proposed by the mayor’s initiative could come just by funding federal programs at about current levels, the group said. That isn’t as simple as it sounds, though, because the Trump administration plans to make deep cuts to the EPA and Interior Department, among others.
Most of the locks on our rivers were built between the 1920s and 1930s and are past their design-life. That is causing costly delays on the Mississippi and its tributaries while locks are overwhelmed with traffic or shut down because of maintenance problems.
The Waterways Council, an advocacy group for the river shipping industry, also is pushing for river infrastructure to be upgraded and damaged ecosystems to be restored along the Mississippi. Twenty-five navigation projects totaling $8.7 billion should be a priority for funding, the council’s senior vice president Debra A. Calhoun said. Those projects, which are on the Mississippi and major rivers such as the Ohio that feed into it, would modernize river infrastructure for 20 years, she said.
That would be a fairly small piece in a $1 trillion infrastructure program. But there would be a big payoff.
Barge traffic could move more quickly if locks and dams were modernized, cutting days off shipping time and saving costs. The mitigation and ecosystem projects could ease flooding, which is devastating to river communities.
“The river is the linchpin of the nation’s domestic freight and water infrastructure, transporting 40 percent of the nation’s total agricultural output. The Mississippi’s main stem provides drinking water to 20 million people in 50 cities, and 80 billion gallons of fresh water to industries every day, which rely on a clean and healthy watershed,” the mayors’ initiative statement said.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 was driven in part by the need for American settlers on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers to have access to the Mighty Mississippi and the port in New Orleans. More than two centuries later, that is still true.