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Several states with different interests are collaborating to protect the most important river in America.
Science & Health

Several states with different interests are collaborating to protect the most important river in America.

Leaders in the Mississippi River region are seeking to create a multi-state agreement to address challenges posed by climate change, water pollution, and drought in other areas.

Colin Wellenkamp, the executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, stated that his family and twenty million others rely on the Mississippi River and its tributaries for their daily drinking water.

According to American Rivers, the Mississippi River, which has the fourth-largest basin in the world, is home to over 400 wildlife species and has resulted in over 350,000 job opportunities. Additionally, it brings in a total of over $21 billion each year through tourism, fishing, and recreational activities.

According to Wellenkamp, the importance of this waterway cannot be overstated, whether it is in terms of clean water, ecology, shipping, or national security. It is crucial that we work together to safeguard and regulate this vital resource.

Community and political leaders aim to achieve this through the implementation of a Mississippi River Compact, which seeks to bring together legislators and citizens across over 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) of the United States’ most significant river.

The compact’s structure would bring together 10 states to collectively manage river resources in cooperation with interested parties, such as environmental organizations, businesses, and communities along the river. This aims to increase transparency and foster a shared accountability for the river’s health.

According to Wellenkamp, the use of harmful fertilizer by a farmer in an upstream state has a negative impact on the ability of fishermen to catch healthy fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

A NOAA map of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Runoff from farms and cities drains into the Mississippi River.

The Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, as shown on a map by NOAA, is caused by runoff from both agricultural and urban areas that flow into the Mississippi River.

The runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from various sources such as lawns, sewage treatment plants, and farmland into the river leads to the growth of algae, which depletes oxygen in the water and results in the death of marine organisms. This has caused a “dead zone” at the mouth of the river where it meets the Gulf, resulting in an estimated loss of $82 million per year for the seafood and tourism industries in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Matt Rota, senior policy director at Healthy Gulf in New Orleans, Louisiana, stated that there are numerous challenges affecting the Mississippi River. These issues include the need to address water diversion protections, the Gulf dead zone, pollution, catastrophic flooding, and persistent droughts. As seen in Louisiana currently, these droughts can lead to saltwater from the Gulf contaminating our drinking water.

Rota stated that these problems cannot be handled on a state-by-state basis. They need to be approached with a holistic view of the entire river. Although the specifics of a compact are currently unclear, there is potential for it to address various issues such as shipping, flooding, agriculture, wastewater disposal, and drinking water. By prioritizing the sustainability of the river, a compact could potentially attract funding to aid in finding solutions for these problems.

A “thousand-mile journey”

Working together to overcome these obstacles may present a challenge.

David Strifling, the director of the Water Law and Policy Initiative at Marquette University, stated that addressing the shared issues related to the river will necessitate collaboration among a wide range of states with varying viewpoints on river management, particularly with regards to concerns about water quality, such as nutrient pollution.

“Still,” he said, the “resolution to pursue the development of a Mississippi River Compact is the first step in a journey of a thousand miles.”

Wellenkamp recognized that there may be disagreements among the states along the river about what is most beneficial, but when the river faces extreme flooding, it puts all of us at risk. Similarly, during severe droughts, we all experience negative effects. The presence of harmful chemicals in the northern part of the river ultimately impacts those of us living in the southern region. Additionally, when manufacturing activities on the southern side of the river are causing harm, it also affects the headquarters located in cities along the northern part of the river.

Strifling sees potential in the efforts of political leaders from the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative to prioritize issues that unite them, such as safeguarding against the diversion of water to areas outside of the river basin.

Threat of “thirsty eyes”

The western portion of the United States is currently facing an unprecedented drought, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. This has caused a 20% decrease in water flow along the crucial Colorado River within the last 20 years.

Kim Mitchell, a senior policy advisor at Healthy Rivers, expressed concern about the deteriorating state of the environment due to climate change. According to forecasts, the flow of the Colorado River could decrease by 25 to 30% by 2050, which is causing urgency for solutions in the region.

FILE - The Colorado River flows at Horseshoe Bend in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Page, Arizona, on June 8, 2022.

In Page, Arizona, on June 8, 2022, the Colorado River can be seen flowing at Horseshoe Bend within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Leaders in the western United States are considering utilizing water from the Mississippi and its major tributary, the Missouri River, as a potential solution. Last year, Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona committed $1 billion towards researching methods such as diverting flood waters from the Mississippi River to replenish the dwindling Colorado River.

Trevor Russell, director of Friends of the Mississippi River’s Water Program, expressed that the concept of transporting surplus water from the Mississippi River to the dry Southwest has been considered for many years, despite its impracticality. He believes that not only would this solution only temporarily address the issues faced in the West, but it would also jeopardize the Mississippi River, which is considered to be America’s most significant river.

This is where a compact for the Mississippi River could be particularly advantageous.

According to Wellenkamp, states with a strong desire to access the Mississippi River have been attempting to do so for a long time. However, the implementation of a Mississippi River Compact would effectively prevent this, as it would require all states along the river to obtain permission from the others before granting access.