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BAY CITY, Wis. — Summers in Bay City when Frank and Cathy Dosdall were young revolved around Lake Pepin.
The small Wisconsin village is about an hour southeast of the Twin Cities at the top edge of the 21-mile lake, the largest on the Mississippi River. Decades ago, the lake was full of people swimming, water skiing and hopping in boats to chase waves from barges that would pass through.
“Any (way) we could get on top of the water when we were kids, we tried it,” Frank recalled.
Today, so much sediment from upstream is flowing in that the community hardly has access to the lake it once enjoyed. And they community is far from alone in feeling the effects of environmental degradation and other problems along the Mississippi River.
Flooding is happening with more frequency and lasting longer, changing flood plain habitats. Invasive species are working their way farther up the river and into its tributaries. And despite efforts to curb pollution running off land and into the river, the dead zone where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico persists.
Advocates for the river are hoping that a proposed federal funding program, modeled after an effort to clean up the Great Lakes, could change that trajectory.
The Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative was introduced last June by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from the Twin Cities. It’s based on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which launched in 2010.
Like the Great Lakes initiative, it would operate within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and provide hundreds of millions in federal funding to groups throughout the 10 states including Iowa along the river. The money could be used to fight invasive species, complete restoration projects, improve water quality and protect against flood damage.
The Great Lakes initiative is widely recognized as a success story. To date, it has funded over 6,500 projects totaling more than $3 billion, and it got a recent billion-dollar boost from the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Republicans and Democrats alike have voted to increase funding for the initiative nearly every year since it passed.
The Great Lakes effort passed when support for the EPA was high and bipartisanship was more common. But in a polarized political climate, even champions of the Mississippi River legislation acknowledge it’s been difficult to build momentum in Congress.
Dead zone big as Connecticut
Roughly 20 million people live along the Mississippi River, which supplies drinking water to more than 50 cities, drives a recreation-based economy that generates $500 billion each year and is home to more than 780 kinds of fish and wildlife. The river’s basin encompasses 31 states and drains water from 40 percent of the continental United States.
Despite the river’s importance, funding for environmental projects is scarce, said Matt Rota, senior policy director at Healthy Gulf, based in New Orleans, La.
“While the Clean Water Act has done a good job of removing some pollutants from the Mississippi River, it’s still treated very much like the nation’s sewer,” Rota said.
Many environmental and health concerns plague the river: harmful algal blooms are forming in areas that are dammed; nitrogen pollution from fertilizer is making people sick; and cities are spending exorbitant amounts to filter their drinking water.
Another big issue is the massive dead zone that forms in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana each year, triggered by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agricultural runoff. This year’s dead zone is projected to be the size of Connecticut.
Agriculture is largely exempt from the Clean Water Act, relying on voluntary measures from farmers to use conservation-based practices that help keep fertilizer in the fields and not in the water, Rota said. The Mississippi River initiative could direct more money toward those voluntary efforts.
The Great Lakes initiative already has laid a road map for how federal funding could assist farmers in protecting waterways, including things like switching to perennial grasses and planting cover crops.
Great Lakes success
Rachel Bouressa was 37 weeks pregnant and holding her toddler’s hand when she first walked into her local Natural Resource Conservation Services office in Waupaca County, Wis.
She was about to take over her family’s farm in New London with one small problem: she had livestock to manage — British White Parks, a heritage breed of beef cattle — but no fence to keep them on her land. The conservation office had funding to help.
The Great Lakes initiative works with other agency partners to reduce runoff and pollution in the lakes.
Bouressa’s farm sits in the Wolf River watershed, where a drop of rainfall travels just over 100 miles through the Fox River into the lower bay of Green Bay, picking up fertilizer and pollution along the way. The pollution-filled runoff from the many farms in northeastern Wisconsin is the likely cause of harmful algal blooms every summer that kill off fish and close beaches.
Bouressa’s farm is part of the solution. She practices managed grazing, where livestock can graze only on one part of the land at a time, keeping the land continuously covered in grasses. The roots help bind the soil together and let water seep slowly into the ground, reducing soil erosion and runoff into nearby waterways.
Practices like this could also greatly reduce the amount of pollution running into the Mississippi River.
Bouressa first received funding from the conservation office in 2016. In 2021, the initiative helped her buy more fencing, pasture seeding and water lines to convert additional land to managed grazing. The funding “made my farming dreams come true,” she said. “I wouldn’t have had access to get the good fence that I needed without cost-sharing available.”
With the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative helping people like Bouressa make strides for water quality for over a decade, it begs the question why the Mississippi River doesn’t already have its own.
Among stakeholders, no one has a clear answer. But they suspect it’s because the states that border the river have different interests — and different problems, too.
“We hear a lot about ‘one river’ and connecting the upper and lower,” said Kirsten Wallace, executive director the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association. “But they’re so different.” Her association does not have a position on the Mississippi River legislation.
Initiatives that section off the river have been attempted before, said Maisah Khan, policy director at the Mississippi River Network, but until groups from across the basin can join together, the problems they’re working on won’t be solved. The dead zone was recorded at a record size just five years ago, for example.
“(The states) say, ‘We’re all trying our best on this,’ but letting each state try its best hasn’t really made anything better,” Khan said.
Mississippi effort could add $330M
The Mississippi River initiative funding — which participating organizations have estimated could be about $300 million — would fall into four main buckets. Those include improving water quality, restoring habitats, reducing the presence of invasive species and creating natural infrastructure to protect against flood damage.
In the two years after its passage, EPA staff would meet key stakeholders along the river — municipalities, tribal governments, nonprofit organizations and universities — to craft an action plan, identifying which projects should receive funding.
Alongside the action plan would be a science plan, which would create three regional hubs at universities in the 10 border states for research on the river’s challenges.
The current bill doesn’t outline specific projects that could be funded, and supporters hope that will make clear that communities get to drive it in the direction that works best for them.
In Bay City, for example, a multimillion-dollar Army Corps of Engineers project will dredge an access channel to connect its harbor to the lake again, as part of a larger habitat restoration effort. Though the city secured money for that without the initiative’s being passed, funding from the legislation could help the project get replicated on other parts of the lake, said Rylee Hince, executive director of the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance.
The financial investment, coupled with local control, could be a gamechanger for small river towns that don’t often see federal dollars come along, Hince said.
Farther down the river, the Tennessee Wildlife Federation is hoping for more dedicated funding to help block invasive carp from coming out of the Mississippi River into the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. It has been working for years to secure money for those projects from federal appropriations, said Lindsay Gardner, associate director of policy research, development and federal relations.
“You have to work that appropriations cycle every year, and it’s uncertain how much money you’ll get,” Gardner said.
As a part of the Mississippi River initiative’s proposed action plan, 35 percent of the funds would be directed toward disadvantaged or low-income communities and communities of color, which disproportionately experience the effects of runoff pollution, low-quality drinking water and severe weather events.
"When you wall in rivers in one place, the river squeezes out of its banks somewhere else," said Trevor Russell, water program director for the nonprofit Friends of the Mississippi River. "It generally falls on those who are least able to protect themselves from it.”
According to Khan, with the Mississippi River Network, one key lesson from the Great Lakes initiative is embedding that equity into the process from the beginning.
What happens next?
Over 100 businesses, organizations and local and state politicians have endorsed the Mississippi River initiative, as well as nine Democratic co-sponsors. No Republicans have signed on.
Advocates say GOP members have privately expressed support but want others in their party to sign on first — a sign of the politically difficult climate in Washington. The clock is also ticking on a congressional session with loads of other priorities — as well as the midterm elections — to contend with.
In an email, McCollum — the primary sponsor — wrote that she is working to win passage during the current session but that there are “many critical issues that need to be addressed in the remaining legislative days.”
Khan said she begins each pitch about the initiative by underscoring that it’s a voluntary program, not a regulatory one. As such, she said there’s not been much disagreement about the importance something like this could have.
When the Great Lakes initiative was reauthorized in 2019, nearly half of the co-sponsors were Republicans.
“People on both sides want to see more investments in the Great Lakes,” Khan said. “And I think that's what we're hopeful for in the Mississippi River.”
Madeline Heim and Caitlin Looby are Report for America corps reporters who write about environmental challenges in the Mississippi River Basin and the Great Lakes, respectively. Contact them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network that includes The Gazette, based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation.