NEW ORLEANS — The Mississippi River needs to be managed differently if it’s going to continue to meet the nation’s needs, according to speakers at The Big River Works Leadership Forum on Thursday.
Problems and concerns along the Mississippi River range from having too much sediment upriver to having too little of that sediment getting into Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands.
There are also problems caused by inadequate federal dollars to fund lower river dredging for navigation, changing flood conditions and water quality issues, including nutrients that flow to the Gulf of Mexico and lead to the annual low-oxygen area known as the dead zone.
Addressing those issues will mean a change from current river management strategies, which are largely based on decisions made in the late 1800s and 1900s meant to make navigation on the river more dependable and to control flooding, said Denise Reed, professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans.
The question of what future Mississippi River management could look like was the topic of the first meeting of The Big River Works Leadership Forum held in New Orleans. Organized by America’s Wetland Foundation, future meetings will be held up and down the Mississippi River to get navigation, environmental organizations, private industry and researchers talking about how to manage the river and how those decisions should be made.
“This is about how do we make 21st-century decisions,” Reed said, which include not only the economic factors of navigation, but also the ecology and the cultures along the river.
Steve Mathies, a member of America’s Great Watershed Initiative and former state director of the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration, agreed.
“We’re talking about how we manage the river over the next 100 years,” Mathies said.
That will take conversation and agreements among states all along the river and national commitment to realize the importance of the river, which accepts water from 31 states, speakers said.
First, though, there needs to be a vision of what the Mississippi River of the future will look like.
“We’re not going to get anywhere until we figure out where we want to go,” said Reed. “Having a vision for a system as large as the Mississippi River is really a daunting charge.”
The Big River Works Initiative and meetings are the first step in trying to expand that conversation to all the states that depend upon a functioning Mississippi River. It’s a process that is complex and could take some time to unfold, said King Milling, board chairman of America’s Wetland Foundation.
As an example, he said that the current state master plan for coastal restoration and protection took years of conversations and planning to come to its current form, which has generated praise for its science-based, realistic approach to the problem of Louisiana coastal land loss.
“This is a process that requires a lot of thought and some disagreement,” Milling said about addressing Mississippi River problems on a systemwide basis.
Each area of the river, Milling said, has its own needs and concerns, and the meetings being organized by America’s Wetland Foundation is a way to start talking about how the river can be managed as a system to address some of these concerns.
Part of Louisiana’s interest in the river is the need for water and sediment to help rebuild portions of the disappearing coastal wetland and to keep navigation open and functioning along the river.
Farther upstream, communities in areas like Memphis, Tenn., St. Louis, Mo., or Chicago face other concerns such as having too much sediment in the river, which needs to be removed.
In addition, the ecology and water quality of the Mississippi River are items that need to be addressed, speakers said.
“When we think about the Mississippi River now, it’s primarily in terms of commerce,” said Susan Kaderka, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation. “This function of transportation has really guided the management of the river.”
However, the river also includes a number of diverse habitats and serves a vital role in fish, wildlife and birds that use the Mississippi River basin at least at some point during their life cycle. For example, 60 percent of all North American birds use the Mississippi flyway and 25 percent of all fish species in North America use the river.
“It’s a biologically rich system,” Kaderka said. “But it’s a system that’s very much in decline.”
Future meetings of The Big River Works Leadership Forums will be held in Memphis, Tenn., in October; St. Louis, Mo., in December; Minneapolis/St.Paul in January; and Chicago in February.