Memphis, TN, Oct. 18, 2012 -- A diverse group of national leaders today called on the country to make the health of the Mississippi River a priority and act swiftly to safeguard one of America’s most remarkable and economically strategic natural resources.
“The Mississippi River is a dysfunctional system,” said R. King Milling, chairman of the America’s WETLAND Foundation (AWF). “We need a national effort to save the third largest river basin in the world, one that touches 31 states and impacts the lives of nearly every American.”
Milling spoke today at The Big River Thrives, the second of five leadership forums in THE BIG RIVER WORKS, a series of events organized by AWF to increase strategic cooperation along the Mississippi River and ensure its long-term health and sustainability.
“We have reached a tipping point,” said Milling in his opening remarks at the forum, which was hosted by Ducks Unlimited at the organization’s headquarters in Memphis, Tenn. “If we don't start coordinating river management, the entire system will continue to degrade, hastening the deterioration of the delta and threatening the massive environmental and economic benefits the river provides to the nation,” Milling said.
“Oftentimes people just assume environmental and economic interests are divided, but we’re united on this,” said Ducks Unlimited Chief Executive Officer Dale Hall. “In addition to its critical importance to fish and waterfowl, the Mississippi River is a source of life for communities across America. At least 50 cities depend on the river for their water supply, and more than 300 species of birds rely on the Mississippi flyway during their life cycle.”
Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe delivered the keynote address at the event, emphasizing that Mississippi’s frequently underestimated significance. “Ecosystems like this are the foundation upon which our civilizations are built. The ecology and economy of this river system is vital to the entire North American continent.”
Ingram Barge Senior Vice President Dan Mecklenborg helped to quantify the river’s vital role as the nation’s superhighway, pointing out that U.S. Inland Waterways move more than 600 million tons of cargo annually and that a standard 15-barge tow on the Mississippi River can haul as much as 1,050 large semi tractor-trailers or 216 rail cars. Not only that, said Mecklenborg, but inland barges produce 73 percent less carbon dioxide than trucks.
“The economic value of our ability to provide navigation and flood control is simply immense,” said Robert Twilley, executive director of the Louisiana State University based Sea Grant, who recommended mapping the river’s assets to demonstrate how all interests need to come together for solutions.
Across the board, participants agreed that the nation’s attention to the river’s sustainability has been lackluster in relation to the Mississippi’s tremendous value to the country.
Paul Rohde, vice president of the Waterways Council, Inc., raised the issue of the river’s diminishing voice in Congress, where only three of the 13 members who serve on the Senate subcommittee dealing with river issues come from river states.
Perciasepe noted that a major impediment to better river management is conflicting federal policies that in turn can be at odds with state policies. But, he said, “The imposing size of the issue is no excuse for inaction.”
Stephen Gambrell, Executive Director of the Mississippi River Commission agreed. “The country needs a national water policy. The time is now.”
Gen. Russell Honore, U.S.Army (Ret.) agreed. “The world’s future conflicts will be about water. We have a chance to solve this problem now for our children and grandchildren.”
At the forum, AWF Managing Director Val Marmillion and Senior Advisor Sidney Coffee presented an overview of findings from interviews and focus groups conducted to determine impediments and opportunities for sustaining the river system. Impediments included inadequate funding, a lack of interest by state executives, and the lack of a collective authority to host a dialogue on uses and misuses of the river.
Marmillion described a view of the river shared by many experts in the field, who say that as the Mississippi River’s natural state has been altered for society’s benefit, those alterations have led to a string of unintended consequences that threaten the very utility they were designed to maximize.
For instance, said Marmillion, rich sediment that is dredged or trapped along the river and its main tributaries or subject to levee structure to benefit navigation and flood control starves lower river wetlands of their life source. High-levels of nitrogen and other nutrients now flow swiftly downriver, causing water quality problems along the way and creating a hypoxic zone—commonly referred to as the dead zone—in the Gulf of Mexico. Levees, locks and dams have dramatically constricted the river’s flow and floodplains and disrupted the natural north to south connections that are crucial to aquatic migrations.