Mississippi River Mayors Want To Increase Resilience of Mississippi River Basin

After a successful series of Washington, D.C., meetings with high-level federal agency leaders, members of Congress and top cabinet officials, member mayors of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative (MRCTI) have released a policy platform that lays out their goals for how best to direct and channel federal spending from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to strengthen and benefit the river corridor.

Speakers at its Washington meeting from March 1 through March 3 included Jaime Pinkham, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Army; Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), whose committee assignments include the Senate Committee on Agriculture; Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), who was inducted as the new co-chair of the Mississippi River Caucus in the Senate; and many others.

A highlight of the summit was a half-hour-long meeting with top White House advisor John Podesta, who “actively engaged” with mayors as they presented their concerns, according to Colin Wellenkamp, MRCTI’s executive director. “Mayors really wanted to see how they could work with the White House to deploy IRA funding at corridor scale instead of each city submitting its own grant application. Why not have all the cities submit one multi-state application?”

The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative is a group of mayors of 103 cities and towns along the Mississippi River basin, extending from north of the Twin Cities to the mouth of the river. Its efforts are focused on directing and channeling investment along the river basin to reflect coordinated plans involving public agencies and private businesses to make the basin more resilient, productive and efficient.

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According to the platform, “The [Infrastructure Investment and] Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act have the potential to fund transformative projects to completion throughout America. However, this historic funding must be backed and supported with long-term and smart policy as well as process and implementation spending for certain critical related programs; and that is exactly the aim of the platform we present here for 2023.”

“Climate resilience” is the broad umbrella term the MRCTI mayors are using to guide their advocacy. Among other things, this means anticipating the effects of climate change instead of reacting to them. That, in turn, means increasing budget lines for pre-existing programs within federal agencies. “We are interested in larger-scale, multi-state projects,” Wellenkamp said.

Most of the programs MRCTI advocates for are “navigation-adjacent” rather than directly concerned with navigation. But it does urge that Congress support the Marine Highway Program by funding the grant account at $12 million, just $2 million above the FY 2023 enacted level.

One of MRCTI’s top priorities is to have Congress pass the remainder of the Safeguarding the Mississippi River Together Act, some parts of which—but not all—were included in the 2022 Water Resources Development Act. The SMRT Act establishes a number of studies and grant programs related to the Mississippi river basin, including the following:

1) Infrastructure Repair, Resilience, and Adaptation Grant to repair, replace, or restore critical natural and built infrastructure assets that have sustained considerable damage due to repetitive loss events through spending lines for planning, resilience and build-back-better activities.

2) A Sustainable Economic Development Grant to allow communities to shift their economies from costly industrial base to clean manufacturing, commodity movement and/or tourism.

3) A State Sedimentation and Errant Nutrient Assistance Grant for states to pursue nutrient reduction strategies more aggressively in the form of planning, innovative achievement of nutrient reduction goals such as nutrient trading, capitalization for best technology, support of on-field sustainable agriculture practices and the development of new markets for cover crops.

4) A Mississippi River Corridor Economic Profile updated every five years to profile the regional economic activity dependent upon the Mississippi Corridor.

5) Watershed Monitoring Network calls for the development of a Water quality and flow monitoring network for the Mississippi River Valley.

6) A Disaster Resilience and Environmental Services Valuation to provide data, research and investigation that offers economic impact of all MVD ecosystem restoration work in terms of disaster resilience and enhanced environmental services to be made part of the MVD’s cost benefit analysis for all ecosystem restoration projects.

7) Trust Fund Feasibility Study to determine the feasibility of establishing a multi-user-fee-supported trust fund for the Mississippi River’s ecological sustainability and built infrastructure integrity and repair. The vision of the bill would exempt the navigation industry from this user fee structure since the industry already pays into the system though a fuel tax.

MRCTI’s largest budgetary “asks” are for $50 million to make the USDA Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative its own directly funded program and a similar amount for the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund from the Department of the Interior. 

“We’ve spent billions of dollars out of recovery funds in the past eight to 10 years,” Wellenkamp said, referring to hurricanes and other natural disasters, including the 2019 Mississippi River floods.“Wouldn’t it be better to spend just a little bit more over current levels to increase resilience in the first place?” he asked.