Mississippi River Report Card fails to Grade what matters
// 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. It is subsidized more than 90% by our tax dollars and likely cannot compete directly with rail on a level playing field. The original barge infrastructure on these rivers was constructed despite studies by the Corps of Engineers clearly showing that they were not in the best economic or environmental interests of the public. Additionally, all of the large projected barge traffic increases on these rivers that were used to justify proposed expansion of this infrastructure never happened.
Further, the Corps’ own economic analysis of the proposed new locks on the Mississippi and Illinois River reveals the taxpayers will lose between 60 and 80 cents for every dollar we invest in this project, unless the overly optimistic barge traffic increases occur. The sorts of increases the projections rely upon would most certainly further degrade the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois River ecosystems.
Concurrently, the ecosystem health grade is misleadingly high because it does not use a healthy river or floodplain as the baseline (AWI Methodology-page17), but instead uses the already highly degraded river/floodplain of a decade ago for comparison. The AWI in effect uses different standards for the ecosystem metrics versus the barge infrastructure that makes it appear that the river ecosystem is OK but the locks and dams needs heavy investment.
The benefits of investing in restoring the public services provided by healthy rivers, which we have almost completely lost by building barge canals, would dwarf the special interest benefits the barge canal provides. Our “industrialized” rivers have become the epitome of the crony capitalism philosophy of “socializing the costs and privatizing the benefits.”
The report card’s Transportation goal description is not “Improve the basin’s overall multi-modal transportation system” but an extremely biased “Serve as the nation’s most valuable river transportation corridor.” This emphasis upon barges was actually predictable since about half of the Steering Committee members and almost all of the goal’s Review Team has a vested interest in promoting barges. During the early commenting process we stated to AWI our concerns about this:
Because of this inherent bias the IWS (Inland Waterways System) becomes essentially the only “sacred cow” within the basin and will not be evaluated objectively. This designation thus serves to influence all other goals because their future must be adjusted based upon the preservation, operation, and likely efforts to expand the IWS.
Therefore, no evaluation is allowed on whether all or parts of the IWS still make sense from a either a transportation or public benefits perspective.
In one of the Post-Dispatch articles, the director of AWI stated, “One of the key things is … to try and develop a shared vision.” We wholeheartedly agree with that, but what this report card does by sanctifying barge transportation is support the status quo and totally ignores the need for wholesale change in how we live with our rivers. The “shared vision” has essentially been forced upon us.
We are not advocating that the process be abandoned, but major changes are needed. There are no environmental or tax advocacy groups on the Steering Committee. The Nature Conservancy, which is the primary managing organization of the AWI, is not an environmental advocacy group, but is actually a natural resources conservation organization that also has direct financial ties to interests that benefit from a status quo river plan. We would like to see, as we have asked the AWI staff numerous times, that there be significantly less special interest influence upon the process and much more public interest involvement.
So, why are we challenging an effort that on the surface appears to be about fixing the river? Because this report card will not address the health of the river; but could instead promote funding for further degradation of the river.