Mayors up and down the Mississippi talk commerce, locks | St. Louis Public Radio

Mayors up and down the Mississippi talk commerce, locks

Mar 21, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – For Mayor Jo Anne Smiley of Clarksville, Mo., clean water is key, given that the Mississippi River provides drinking water to 18 million Americans.

For Alton, Ill., Mayor Tom Hoechst, the emphasis is on efforts to help farmers to prevent erosion that leads to sediment buildups that require river dredging. And, of course, the need for more federal investment in river locks and dams.

And Tom Thompson, the mayor of Grafton, Ill., attracted attention in discussions about invasive species, including the river-infesting Asian carp that will be harvested and processed at a plant in his small city north of St. Louis.

In the ornate caucus room of the U.S. House Cannon office building, those three joined a bevy of other mayors, a clutch of lawmakers, and representatives of groups ranging from environmentalists to the barge industry in walking on the Mississippi.

That is, they stood on a 50-foot-long floor map of the great river during a news conference Thursday about the formation of a Mississippi River Caucus and the new platform of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative (MRCTI), a group formed last year to promote a “sustainable future” for the river’s region.

“We have a lot of work to do” on a range of issues to maintain the Mississippi as “a wonderful resource for everything from recreation to navigation,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who co-chairs the Mississippi caucus with U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. Other members include U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

The MRCTI, coordinated by the Northeast-Midwest Institute with funding from the Walton Family Foundation, is seeking to foster a collective effort to evaluate the river as a continuous waterway – rather than in state-by-state segments – and to balance the economic needs of river regions with ecological needs.

The MRCTI’s co-chair, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, took part in its meetings in Washington this week but was not at the news conference. The group’s director, Colin M. Wellenkamp, a native St. Louisan, confirmed that the organization eventually will be headquartered in St. Louis, although he didn’t know exactly when that will take place.

A photo exhibit, displayed atop the giant floor map in the Cannon building, was contributed by arts organizations up and down the river, including the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission and the Jacoby Arts Center in Alton.

Focus on aging river infrastructure

While the mayors and lawmakers talked about other issues, much of the focus was on the economic importance of the Mississippi to regional economies, supporting industries that account for more than a million jobs and $100 billion of the gross domestic product.

Even though more than 60 percent of the nation’s agricultural output is transported on the river, there are tens of billion of dollars worth of river projects – including new locks and dams on the upper Mississippi – that the government has not funded.

“We must take stock and reinvest in the oldest infrastructure in our history,” urged Larry L. “Butch” Brown, the mayor of Natchez, Miss. “If we have a bridge that fails, we replace it. If we have a lock that fails, we close it.”

St. Cloud, Minn., Mayor David Kleis – who co-chairs the MRCTI with Slay – complained that the Senate’s major water resources development bill, approved by a committee this week, makes “not one mention of the Mississippi River” – even though many locks and dams can't handle the projected cargo. Closing the river to navigation can cost $300 million a day, he said.

Slay’s emphasis also has been on river commerce, saying in statements this week that “U.S. ports are NOT ready to take advantage” of the expected increase in commerce resulting from the Panama Canal’s expansion in 2015.

The mayor of Memphis, A.C. Wharton, said the jobs of 16,000 men and women in his city depended on the river, and he fears that the delayed impact from last year’s severe Midwest drought is going to affect food prices and river commerce for a long while.

“Our country has not yet developed a national drought policy,” complained Wharton, who called for the establishment of a National Drought Council that would help coordinate the policies of federal agencies and develop a plan for regions to prepare for the impact of severe drought – including threats to river navigation.

Invasive species: processing Asian carp in Grafton

Among the issues brought up by river-city mayors was the environmental threat of invasive species, such as Asian carp, which are crowding out native fish and eating the plankton that feeds other species.

In an interview, Grafton’s Mayor Thompson said a new carp-processing plant will open in his city “in the next two or three weeks,” after it gets final approval from Illinois state agencies.

“We’ve got the ground, the company’s got a building and the equipment,” said Thompson, excited that the plant not only will bring in revenue and jobs but also help lessen the number of invasive Asian carp. The company, Heartland Fish Products LLC, will process Asian carp harvested by local fishermen into fishmeal and Omega 3 fish oil.

Asian carp began infesting U.S. waters decades ago, gradually migrating up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, and they are now poised to invade the Great Lakes. Bighead and silver carp are considered a serious threat because they devour plankton, which feeds many native species of fish and other wildlife.

Mayor Bob Huber of Prescott, Wisc., commended Grafton’s carp initiative and called for more comprehensive federal monitoring of non-native species and their impact on the river’s ecology.

Some of the other priorities outlined by Missouri and Illinois mayors included:

  • Alton’s Hoechst said the federal government should “prevent sedimentation and erosion with increased conservation measures,” traditionally funded in the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Stewardship Program.
  • Clarksville's Smiley, who said that “clean water is essential to our cities, our agriculture, our recreation and our overall well being,” expressed concern that Congress may no longer fund a key Environmental Protection Agency’s program “to protect and restore the nation’s watersheds.”

Mayors’ platform calls for coordinated effort

The Mississippi River platform developed by the mayors includes calls for:

  • An “environmentally sound and financially sustainable” Water Resources Development Act that includes a specific “Mississippi River environmental restoration, protection and sustainability program.”
  • Fostering the continued growth of the new Mississippi River caucus.
  • Focusing more federal funds to “advance the most improvement in the Mississippi River’s water quality.”
  • A comprehensive agriculture bill that “allows cities to participate in and receive funding from the Conservation Stewardship Program,” sets up a national sod saver program, and reestablishes the link between conservation compliance and crop insurance subsidies.
  • Establishing a National Drought Council that “works with stakeholders to create a drought policy action plan and comprehensive national drought preparedness legislation.”
  • A multi-agency initiative to develop “a coordinated strategy that aids local governments as they address aquatic invasive species” in the Mississippi River Basin.