The Great Lakes, Everglades, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound. What do these national treasures have that the Mississippi River does not? A dedicated federal restoration program. However, U.S. Representatives Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), Cori Bush (D-Missouri), John Yarmuth (D-Kentucky), Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) and Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) aim to change that. Their bill would authorize a federal Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative (MRRRI) to coordinate restoration and resilience opportunities along the Mississippi. And
just as the bill’s cosponsors represent the river’s reach, so do the groups lining up to support it.

mississippi river
A couple fish the swollen Mississippi River on balmy spring day. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“Organizations in each of the 10 riverfront states are rallying behind this,” said Kelly McGinnis, executive director of the Mississippi River Network, a national organization that so far includes 50 groups that are backing the initiative.

Here in Minnesota, the Friends of the Mississippi River has supported the initiative from the start. We know that while there are programs and initiatives that have made great strides to promote the river’s health, we need a coordinated, holistic approach—one that respects and supports local solutions—to truly address the Mississippi River’s complex problems.

Nearly 40 percent of the land in the continental United States drains into the Mississippi River. The waterway faces urban and agricultural runoff, habitat loss and intensifying storms and floods. River pollution culminates in the northern Gulf of Mexico, where stretches of the Mississippi are increasingly transformed into summer “dead zones” with water that has too little oxygen for fish and other wildlife to breathe.

The MRRRI would authorize an estimated $300-$350 million annually in federal grants…to improve water quality, restore habitats, reduce aquatic invasive species and build resilience to natural disasters in and along the Mississippi.

“The Mississippi River has long been neglected when compared to other vital waters throughout the country,” said Matt Rota, senior policy director for Healthy Gulf in New Orleans. “The river needs a comprehensive restoration program. The MRRRI would be an incredible resource for the communities and wildlife that depend on the river.”

The Mississippi supports 879 wildlife species, and 18-20 million Americans rely on it for drinking water, according to the National Park Service. Researchers at Green Lands Blue Waters estimate that Mississippi delta wetlands, forests, coastal areas and agricultural land provide flood and hurricane protection, fishery and recreational services worth anywhere from $12-$47 billion annually in the delta area alone.

If approved, the MRRRI would authorize an estimated $300-$350 million annually in federal grants to state, tribal and community agencies and organizations to improve water quality, restore habitat and natural systems, reduce aquatic invasive species and build resilience to natural disasters in and along the Mississippi River. At least 25 percent of the funds would be directed to river projects in low-income communities or communities of color that bear the brunt of river pollution or degradation. An additional 10 percent would be directed to communities that experience persistent poverty.

How federal grants will be spent

All funded projects will need to take place in an area of a riverfront state or tribal nation that drains to the Mississippi River. We cannot yet point to specific projects that the new initiative would support.

“We—people from throughout the 10 river states and tribal nations—will make these decisions together,” according to McGinnis.

The bill calls for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to head the new headwaters-to-Gulf river program. It directs the EPA to work closely with other federal agencies, state and local decision makers, scientific advisers and the public to craft an action plan that guides investments according to publicly expressed and research-backed priorities. We are optimistic that by funding community-driven projects and the jobs that come with them, rather than creating new regulations or policies, both sides of the political aisle will embrace the bill.

America’s great river, the mighty Mississippi, is one of the most important waterways–ecologically and economically– in the world, yet it has never received a fraction of the restoration investment that it so direly needs. “Thanks to Representative McCollum’s visionary legislation, the innovative tools, strategic investments, collaborative partnerships and sustained focus are finally in reach to ensure that the communities and wildlife that depend on the Mississippi can thrive,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

Those of us who live in river communities, who love the Mississippi and want to see it restored to full health are excited to support MRRRI. We urge representatives and senators to take up the bill and pass it during this Congress.

—Whitney Clark

The writer is the executive director of the Saint Paul-based Friends of the Mississippi River.

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