Our Views: A big push for big river

One of the best initiatives of the last year was not strictly governmental, but encompassed public and private sectors involved in the economic and environmental development of the Mississippi River watershed.

Called “The Big River Works,” the initiative of the America’s Wetland Foundation aims to provoke the kind of wide-ranging discussions that are appropriate for the giant of the river that is vital to America and to Louisiana, where it meets the sea.

“The river remains the lifeblood of the Midwest but its global connections to agriculture, manufacturing, energy and other sectors make it the nation’s main artery of commerce,” wrote R. King Milling, a New Orleans civic leader, in the Memphis Commercial Appeal last year.

In meetings up and down the river last year, a bargeload of experts and interest group representatives talked about the long-term issues facing the river.

“The river’s economic might is linked intricately to its ecological health, which in many places is deteriorating,” Milling said. “This is bad news for more than 40 percent of the country’s migratory birds and 25 percent of North American fish species, which also depend on the Mississippi River, not to mention the millions of people who rely on it for drinking water.”

Meetings in St. Louis and Memphis last year, and now Minneapolis at the very head of the river, will be followed by a Chicago meeting in April. In every case, the agenda will promote cooperation among the myriad communities, economic interests and civic groups with profound interests at stake in the river’s future.

As we know all too well in Louisiana, and Milling noted for upriver readers, the river’s history “is riddled with decisions that have long-lasting consequences. In a recurring example, sediment that is dredged or trapped by structures or levees along the river’s main channels to allow for shipping and flood control, starves lower river wetlands of their life source.

“Cut off from the upriver sediment it depends upon, the delta has rapidly deteriorated at the same time high concentrations of sediment are choking the upper river system.”

The Big River initiative is pushing recognition of the vast economic importance of the river, including the vast bulk of the nation’s agricultural exports. Those are endangered lately by low river levels, and consequent bickering among the states and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the maintenance of the river.

But the environmental impacts of the river are substantial, as more than 40 percent of the country’s migratory birds and 25 percent of North American fish species depend on the Mississippi River system. Altogether, the river and its tributaries touch 31 states and the lives of more than 60 percent of Americans, the Wetlands Foundation reported.

We look forward to lessons learned and initiatives going forward, but the reality is that as big as the river’s problems are, more than just a mandate from some federal pooh-bah will be required to make changes for the better. The goal of “decisions on river management (that) need to be coordinated and based on common sense, economic sense and ecological sense,” as Milling put it, is going to involve an immense amount of communication and collaboration.

Not to mention foresight about those unintended consequences.