Mississippi River Group Marks 10 Years In St. Louis

As it celebrates 10 years of activism and success with its  anniversary meeting in St. Louis—its first live meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic—Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative (MRCTI) addresses a world that seems to be catching up to the vision it was created to promote, a vision of a systemwide response to systemwide challenges to the Mississippi River basin. 

That confluence of visions was on display September 13-15. MRCTI moves its meetings to different river cities and towns but tries to have a meeting in St. Louis at least once every five years. 

At a September 13 press conference that included the mayors of Alton, Ill.; Greenville, Miss.; Memphis, Tenn.; Blyetheville, Ark.; Ste. Genevieve, Mo.; and West Helena, Ark., participants were welcomed to St. Louis by St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones. “Our city is thrilled to host this year’s MRCTI conference in downtown St. Louis, and I am proud to be part of MRCTI and advocate for the most vulnerable in our corridor,” Jones said. 

LMR Demonstration Program

The agenda was packed. The press conference was to announce the inclusion of the Lower Mississippi River Demonstration Program—Section 406—in this year’s Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). Introduced by Sen. John Boozman, (R-Ark.), who spoke via video at the conference, the program gives the Lower Mississippi the beginnings of a systemic ecological restoration program similar to ones that the Upper Mississippi, Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay enjoy. It’s a pilot program that provides $90 million over five years for communities to use to improve conservation. Called by some the Andrew Young SMART program, it partly realizes goals long advocated by Young, a former member of Congress, mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. 

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“The sustainability of the Mississippi River Valley has worldwide implications we cannot ignore. I am proud to be working directly with the mayors of MRCTI to achieve a national approach to more sustainably managing the most important river corridor on earth,” Young said. “I want to thank Sen. Boozman for his project in WRDA, which realizes a significant portion of my vision for a unified conservation approach at basin scale.”

Young spoke of his longstanding interest in water issues. “I was born in New Orleans and grew up walking the levees. My childhood home was washed away by Hurricane Katrina,” he said. Noting the work of MRCTI, he said, “I can’t think of a more promising or hopeful place in the U.S. than the Mississippi Valley.” He added, “It’s hard for a former mayor of Atlanta to admit, but everything good in the U.S. comes from the Midwest.”

A formal welcoming ceremony that evening on the grounds of the Gateway Arch featured costumed historical re-enactors and a flag ceremony. Belinda Constant, mayor of Gretna, La., and state chair of MRCTI, signed a renewal of the group’s five-year contract with CDP North America, which describes itself as a not-for-profit charity that “runs the global disclosure system for investors, companies, cities, states and regions to manage their environmental impacts.”

Smart Water

The next day, the mayors met in the restored Grand Hall of St. Louis Union Station for a breakfast plenary session titled “The Next 10 Years of Near-Water Development.” 

Mahesh Lunani, CEO of Aquasight, spoke on “The Digitization of Our Water Infrastructure.” Aquasight, a company promoting “smart water,” has built an artificial intelligence infrastructure for the entire water cycle, which it says is being used by more than 100 cities, villages and townships of all sizes, with “six plug-and-play solutions and can scale to any community.” Lunani said city water systems are facing a “silver tsunami” of retirements of older workers who may not be able to pass on their accumulated knowledge of older operating systems. Digitization can help. 

On August 18, Aquasight announced a strategic partnership with Amazon Web Services. “By passing the rigorous AWS Foundational Technical Review, all six of Aquasight’s Intelligent Water Solutions have achieved a very high bar on architecture and cybersecurity,” said Patrick Keaney, worldwide head of business development for water of AWS, at a recent conference. 

Cruise Demand

David Simmons, a senior consultant at Viking Cruise Lines, spoke on the newly launched Viking Mississippi. “We have spent zero dollars on Mississippi River cruise marketing,” he said, due to high demand. The Viking Mississippi, built by Edison Chouest Offshore, is 450 feet long and 75 feet wide. It can accommodate 386 guests, with a crew of 148. Viking North America has 1,500 U.S. employees and an annual payroll of $100 million. It operates in 16 U.S. ports, with 125 shore partners and six hotel partners to serve more than 17,000 guests a year. “We are now on every major river system all over the globe,” Simmons said. Simmons said the typical Viking customer is affluent, educated and curious about culture and history.

Mayor Paul Hassler of the French-heritage Ste. Genevieve, Mo.—and a 46-year veteran of JB Marine—introduced the French Ambassador to the United States, Philippe Etienne, who spoke of the French Heritage Corridor, an initiative created in May by the Chicago French Heritage Society that comprises seven states in the Midwest—Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. Joined by waterways connecting with the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, these states all include regions that were once part of New France. Etienne also spoke of this summer’s water and drought crises in Europe and accepted an invitation from the mayor of Natchez, Miss., to visit. 

Ducks Unlimited Awarded $80 Million By USDA

Adam Putnam, CEO of Ducks Unlimited, then spoke on “When A City’s Most Valuable Asset Is Natural.” When Ducks Unlimited was founded in 1937, he said, wetlands were universally seen as things to drain and turn into farmland. “No one valued wetlands as much as our forebears [in DU] did,” he said. “We now know that wetlands are the kidneys of the water system and the shock absorbers of storms and hurricanes. Today we see them as natural infrastructure. We recognize that you can’t completely unwind the man-made infrastructure that corrals rivers today, but we can hybridize it” with natural systems. DU has preserved close to 1 billion acres of wetlands in Canada and 15 million acres in the U.S. He told the mayors he just learned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded DU $80 million to support its Rice Stewardship Partnership through a Climate-Smart Commodities Grant.

Putnam, who jokingly called himself a “recovering congressman,” praised DU as an organization that gets things done. “We don’t have the luxury of living pure. We have to solve problems now, in the real world.” A lively discussion followed, with several mayors asking questions. 

To demonstrate what Putnam was talking about, buses took guests to Horseshoe Lake across the river in East St. Louis, where Mayor Robert Eastern III and fellow mayors discussed how natural features can augment built infrastructure to make cities multi-hazard resilient.

Clean River Grants

Afternoon panels, held at the Missouri Athletic Club, included sessions on opportunities for communities in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included $50 billion for water infrastructure, $350 million for solid waste projects and $100 million for pollution reduction.  

The afternoon presentation culminated when recipients of the EPA’s Clean Mississippi River Grants were revealed. Louisiana State University, Clean Memphis Organization and MRCTI itself all received checks from the Environmental Protection Agency for just under $500,000 for their work on clean water—MRCTI for its Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative. Jennifer Wendt, plastics campaign manager for MRCTI, spoke on the plastic pollution campaign. Prof. Jenna Jambeck of the University of Georgia described how students and volunteers using the Debris Tracker Citizen Science Field Guide phone app, which can be found online on the University of Georgia website, have collected and catalogued 136,148 items of river pollution over a period of four weeks, covering an area equivalent to 30,000 football fields. 

Kathi Jo Jankowski, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, spoke on the June report released by the USGS and Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program on ecological trends in the Mississippi River (WJ, July 12). She summarized its key findings briefly: the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers have more water, more of the time; floodplain forest loss has occurred across most of the system; nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient concentration are still high, but the latter have declined, along with suspended solids; the water of both rivers has become clearer; and plants are more abundant. 

Global Food Trends

The September 15 breakfast plenary meeting featured a keynote talk by Sarah Menker, a former Wall Street energy trader who left Wall Street to found Gro Intelligence eight years ago. Gro Intelligence has created an engine that aggregates publicly available data from around the world, updates it daily and interprets it to track trends and provide analyses to public and private clients around the world. In “de-siloing” data from many sources and making it connect and talk across a common platform, Gro Intelligence is doing what many governments would like to do but mostly have not, for many reasons. Menker called it “data from our earth to our markets,” and she said the system had generated 2 million separate models so far. Gro Intelligence’s clients are corporate, including food and energy companies; hedge funds and financial institutions looking to monitor risk; and public sector agencies around the world. 

Menker noted that since the beginning of COVID, the world has seen a steady rise in the prices of all agricultural commodities. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the severe drought this summer were extra layers on the production crisis. Gro Intelligence has a U.S. food price index tool that looks at a typical “grocery basket” of foods across all sectors (grains, vegetables, proteins etc.) that excludes energy as a component. It also has produced a global drought index, the only one available. Menker said 30 percent of the entire northern hemisphere is in drought this summer. 

Gro Intelligence is also using its data to look at natural gas prices to figure out the effects on fertilizer production and prices, and therefore on crop yields. Natural gas is a key feedstock of nitrogen fertilizer. Thanks to Russia’s actions, it now costs $2,800 a ton to produce fertilizer within the European Union—leading to the shutdown of most fertilizer production there, as this cost makes it uneconomic to produce. Menker revealed that the outlook for fertilizer availability is now worse than the worst-case scenarios produced by Gro Intelligence last month. 

Structural changes in food demand from China are adding demand shocks to supply shocks. During the COVID shutdown, China became a net grain importer, and Gro Intelligence’s models foresee an increase in Chinese demand of about 15 million tons of corn and beans a year. 

Gro Intelligence also built a series of Climate Risk Navigators that can aggregate data to zoom in on particular assets to determine their degree of climate risk. Originally developed to track farmland across the globe, it can be applied to other assets. Menker showed how it can apply to bridges across the Mississippi River, comparing trend data on average rainfall with the degree of bridge vulnerability to breakdown to arrive at a climate risk assessment for each bridge and region.