An abridged version of this article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on December 30, 2015.
By: Brad Walker – Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Caroline Pufalt – Missouri Chapter of the Sierra Club and Christine Favilla – Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club
November 23, 2015
The American Watershed Initiative’s (AWI) recent overall D+ grade for the Mississippi River may be accurate, but the report is deficient in key points important to the public’s understanding of the river and their tax dollars.
Providing a report card for the basin is admittedly a gargantuan task and requires a lot of data and evaluation to accomplish. But the report is clearly biased toward “perfecting” a highly subsidized navigation system without examining the costs in tax dollars and detrimental river impacts of that infrastructure.
The report also lacks discussion of cause and effect among the elements it measures. When AWI (primarily a Nature Conservancy project) released this report card for the entire 31-state Mississippi River Basin, they graded six broad goals – Ecosystems (C), Flood Control & Risk Reduction (D+), Transportation (D+), Water Supply (C), Economy (C), and Recreation (C). Unfortunately, the promotion of the subsidized barge industry above all other interests prevents much-needed review of the effect river navigation infrastructure has on water quality, flood risk reduction, environmental health, and recreation.
Recent Post-Dispatch articles about the report card implied the D+ grade is primarily a matter of inadequate funding, especially related to the Transportation grade, which is exclusively about barge transport. Some quotes supporting this view are included below:
Among the worst-performing areas was navigation infrastructure such as locks and dams, said co-author Heath Kelsey, the director of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
In an interview, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said that locks and dams were “in terrible condition” and that state and local governments could afford only so much.
Yet those quoted in the articles largely promote investing more money in the very infrastructure partially responsible for the low grades in other areas, especially the ecosystem. The culprit is the river barge system of locks and dams and the levees that primarily protect agriculture land that produces commodities that are shipped on the river.
The fact is that the construction of the Inland Waterway System (IWS) within the Upper Mississippi River, Illinois River, and Missouri River has been the prime cause of the degradation to these nostalgically called “rivers.” The barge infrastructure has had immense negative impacts upon biodiversity, the public services that a healthy river provides, and the taxpayers’ wallets.… Read the rest