116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
An Iowa professor known in part for his work on river flows, flood risk and fish passage, and a now-retired Nashville attorney for one of the country’s largest inland river transportation companies might seem unlikely allies.
But lives and careers intertwined with North America’s greatest river system have made us just that.
As board members for the Mississippi River basin-focused America’s Watershed Initiative, we’ve learned that looking at the same river through different lenses has enormous value, and that—in the end—our common interests in a healthy and well-managed Mississippi River system are much more powerful than anything that might divide us.
We’ve also learned how important it is to have reliable and consistent scientific information about this system, the degree to which we do—and don’t—have that, and how the federal, state and private stakeholders might address the gaps that do exist.
On the positive side of the ledger: Two new scientific reports focused on the five-state Upper Mississippi River system provide remarkable and critical insights into how the system is doing and a basis for assessing collective efforts so far to better manage this system.
The existence of these reports—the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association’s Executive Summary of “How Clean is the River?” and the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program’s “Ecological Status and Trends of the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers”—also serve to illuminate the system’s needs and a pathway forward.
The products of decades of working the muscles of inter-state, interagency and federal-state collaboration, they exist not by fortuitous accident but because of sustained and intentional commitment of resources—financial and human.
As such, the processes and systems that have made them possible could serve as a model for collaboration around scientific data gathering at a larger scale throughout the Mississippi River watershed.
This is what we would urge stakeholders elsewhere on the Mississippi and its tributaries to envision and pursue.
Why does this matter? A look at some of what we’ve learned from “Status and Trends” and “How Clean is the River?” provides an answer.
Decreases—over three decades—in heavy metals, sediment, and phosphorus show that water quality management investments and approaches have made a difference in the Upper Mississippi. At the same time: Increases in nitrogen, chloride, and emerging pollutants of concern show the need for continued collaboration on solutions.
How could we benefit from similar systems and data throughout the watershed?
To start: Without data, we’re to make decisions largely based on opinions, biases, and perceptions—a risky proposition with so much at stake.
Think about navigation. We wouldn’t want to navigate the river based on biases. But, right now, we don’t have good data and models for sedimentation in key areas of the river. Such information is fundamental for monitoring dredge needs and having it would significantly improve the efficiency of navigation operations.
For many, it might come as a surprise that we don’t already have a comprehensive and shared process for gathering scientific information throughout a river system upon which we rely for so much of value.
It should come as a surprise.
But, gathering consistent high-quality data across multiple states and over a long period of time takes patience, people, planning and money.
When significant resources are at stake, elected officials and many of their constituents understandably—and rightly—want to see tangible, “brick-and-mortar” outcomes. To be clear, we want to see these things, too.
But we also know we collectively can’t lose sight of the fact that in the absence of an underlying investment in our understanding of key natural and man-made systems and how they interact upon each other, our tangible infrastructure investments will be—in many cases—enormous gambles.
The bottom line: Good data helps us make good decisions.
In the Upper Mississippi River system, state resource management agencies, federal agencies and others have positioned themselves for success. Let’s do the same throughout the basin.
This summer, when you’re out on a river—Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois, or many others—and you’re thinking about the wonders of this old, endlessly giving, but somehow still mysterious, friend, ask yourself if it’s worth the effort to get to know it better. We think you’ll agree the answer is an unequivocal yes.
Dan Mecklenborg, is retired chief legal officer for Ingram Barge Company. Larry Weber is professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa.