Brad Walker, Rivers Director

[This post originally appeared on the Nicollet Island Coalition website.]

Our Upper Mississippi River landscape is replete with threatened and endangered species. This article is going to introduce you to one vulnerable species that you probably are unaware of — but none the less needs your help.

In August 2016 the 30th anniversary of the Upper Mississippi River Restoration (UMRR) program, formerly the Environmental Management Program was celebrated. The UMRR is a concession by Congress dating back to the 1986 Water Resources Development Act, primarily resulting from the battle over the construction of the Melvin Price Locks & Dam at Alton, Illinois. This history was chronicled in a Missouri Coalition for the Environment article titled The Dam That Was Too Big to Hide and is a true advocacy success story. Since 1986 much has been learned by the experts who have worked on the UMRR program, and there have been over 50 projects completed, and according to the Corps, the program has positively affected more than 100,000 acres of land in and adjacent to the UMR. But the river’s overall health has not really improved because the UMRR program is too small in scope and funding, and the major stressors — barge navigation and industrial agriculture — remain unabated.

However, this article is not about the UMRR program; it is about my concern for an endangered species that will never be listed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. It is the advocates that have worked against all odds to reform the Corps’ management of the river by focusing upon the first stressor listed above — barge navigation. Over the last more than eight decades the construction and maintenance of barge navigation infrastructure, as well as the direct actions of using nine-foot deep draft barges, have had significant negative effects upon the river environment and the costs of the system are nearly completely funded by the taxpayers. I am one of a relatively small group of people working to reform river navigation, almost all of who are members of the Nicollet Island Coalition (NIC).

Mississippi River Pollution – Andy Singer

When I was doing my research in August 2013 for the article on the history of the Melvin Price Locks & Dam at Alton, IL I was surprised that there were a significant number of organizations advocating against the project. Additionally, I was amazed to have found in a box in our office considerable important documentation that they had produced in support of their positions, most of which had not made it to the Internet. I would have really appreciated having had access to this information numerous times while working on previous articles or presentations.

During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s a broad group of people and organizations materialized to fight to change how the UMR was being managed by the Corps. It was the proposed new dam at Alton that spurred them into action and new environmental laws that gave them the legal tools to act. Although they did not stop the construction project they were successful in altering it and the Corps’ “paternal” philosophy used to manage the UMR.

Most of these groups still exist as before, some have either disappeared altogether or morphed into other organizations. Sierra Club, the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA), MCE, the Wilderness Society, and Friends of the Earth are five that are intact today but only the first three remain connected to UMR work at or near a daily level. The Coalition on American Rivers split and became American Rivers and eventually Prairie Rivers Network; both also remain active with the UMR.

However after the Melvin Price Locks & Dam issue was settled, many people eventually retired, organization’s priorities changed, and there has been what seems to be an endless list of other environmental and social issues that have needed addressing; so this loosely-knit pseudo-coalition focused upon the locks & dam eventually dispersed.

In the early 1990s many of these organizations came together again responding to the Corps work on the Upper Mississippi River -Illinois Waterway System Navigation Feasibility Study, which has become more widely known as the Navigation & Ecosystem Sustainability Program — NESP for short. This project represented at least an equal threat to the health of the river (and the taxpayers’ wallets) that the Melvin Price project did.

The Nicollet Island Coalition (NIC), a group of more than a dozen state, regional and national non-profit organizations was created in 1994 to provide coordinated advocacy work from the participating environmental groups on UMR issues and drove the debate and raised public awareness surrounding the UMR navigation system. NIC was originally coordinated through the McKnight Foundation funded Mississippi River Basin Alliance (MRBA), also formed in the early 1990s, which was comprised of about 80 organizations from within the basin and covered the entire Mississippi River. The MRBA was disbanded in 2007 and the original NIC essentially disbanded as well about 2008. NIC was reconstituted with a smaller group of members in 2009 by the IWLA and has since then been funded by the McKnight Foundation, but coordinated by America Rivers since 2014.

NIC remains the only group within the entire Mississippi River basin primarily focusing upon the impacts, both ecologically and economically, of the navigation system upon our rivers. It is very challenging work and unlike water quality and flood risk concerns, there are no university disciplines/degrees that are directly transferable to advocacy efforts for navigation issues. There are many topics to learn and a steep learning curve for several of them. There are also numerous highly paid industry professionals lobbying and providing misinformation to both the public and decision-makers regarding the value of the navigation system that need to be countered.

We need to be grooming dedicated people for the future who can confidently and competently advocate for the public in order to help us flip the current overwhelming emphasis of private sector economic exploitation of the rivers to restoring the rivers for the public benefit. Because of that steep learning curve, we need advocates who are also interested in committing long-term to this work.

If you are attracted to working on rivers issues that are both interesting and challenging, contact one of the NIC members. We can certainly use the help.