America’s Watershed Initiative Focuses Attention On Mississippi River System

Kim Lutz has just finished her first year as executive director of America’s Watershed Initiative, a unique—and the only—non-profit organization focusing on the entire Mississippi River watershed.  Lutz is its first executive director, hired from the Nature Conservancy, where she directed watershed programs along the Savannah and Connecticut rivers. But her river roots go back beyond that. Although she was born in Los Angeles, one grandfather ran a grain elevator in southern Illinois, and the other was from a dairy-farming family in Wisconsin, so she spent summers near Peoria, Ill., and La Crosse, Wis.

The AWI was conceived in 2010 by a diverse group of people who saw a means to develop a multi-sector, collaborative approach to the watershed. Incubated within the Nature Conservancy, AWI became an independent non-profit organization in 2018.AWI’s board includes several high-profile barge industry veterans, including Dan Mecklenborg, chief legal officer of Ingram Barge Company; Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of Waterways Council Inc.; and Frank Morton, founder of Turn Services. Sean Duffy of Big River Coalition is a board member, as well as Corps of Engineers veterans, farm representatives like Rachel Orf of the National Corn Growers Association, and Kirsten Wallace of the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association. “Our board is a very active one,” said Lutz. “It has 17 members, all of whom are actively engaged in the organization’s work, and I talk to at least half of them every week.” 

The broad diversity of interests represented on AWI’s board is no accident. This makes AWI unique among Mississippi River organizations. Its aim is to understand and address both the environmental and economic health of the Mississippi River basin as a single whole. Its board represents interests that don’t often get together to collaborate in a common forum. 

A key focus of AWI’s mission is developing and disseminating the Report Card, a multi-factor assessment of the Mississippi River basin. In addition to the report card, AWI is interested in bringing attention to the needs of the basin.  For example, AWI is working to advance a conversation about federal funding for key work in the basin. It may be surprising to learn that “the country’s largest river system has no dedicated funding for the Mississippi River basin on a watershed scale,” Lutz said. 

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The 2020 report card grades aspects of basin health including water quality, recreation, flood control and risk management, economy and  transportation. Overall, the basin got a grade of C-, a slight improvement from the D+ it received in the previous report card. Each sub-basin—the Upper Mississippi River, Ohio River, Missouri River and Arkansas/Red Rivers—gets its own grade as well. All of the sub-basins currently have a “C” grade except the Arkansas/Red, which has a D+. Much of that grade is driven by wetland loss along that river segment, said Lutz, which has approached 3 percent. Water quality is also a concern. 

The report card is under constant development. The latest survey of constituents showed that they want an instrument that can drive policy changes, not just report on status. “We keep looking for metrics that can help us measure the impact of the work that is being done on the ground,” said Lutz. “And for that to happen, we need better information to inform actions. One way AWI is addressing this is a multi-partner effort that would result in more monitoring stations to provide additional data on nutrients and sediment and water quantity to address water quality and flooding, both issues addressed in the report card.” 

AWI works closely with the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science. The university has a program in science communication that has produced river and marine report cards across the globe. The Mississippi River report card was the first one that attempted to look at both the environmental and economic parameters of a watershed, said Lutz. Report cards have been used as a powerful tool to share complex information in a format that is familiar to people. “AWI’s report card aims to tell the story of our nation’s most important watershed in ways that motivate action to address the opportunities and challenges across this incredible resource,” said Lutz.