ST. LOUIS — St. Louis may have little in common with Vidalia, La., and St. Cloud, Minn. But there is a common thread — a turbid, 2,500-mile thread.
That bond brought mayors from up and down the Mississippi River basin to St. Louis to strategize how to simultaneously protect and make use of one of the nation’s greatest natural assets.
In all, 41 mayors formed the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative earlier this year. About half of them are in St. Louis to determine priorities and how to get action on them at the national level.
“We’re not trying to tame the Mississippi; we’re trying to adapt to the Mississippi and make the most of it,” Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton said during a news conference Thursday. “It takes different strategies in different places, but we have to speak with one voice.”
Among attendees from the Quad-City area are Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba and the mayors of Clinton, Muscatine and Savanna, Ill.
Even before last year’s flooding and this summer’s historic drought, there was growing concern up and down the river about a variety of issues, from water quality to locks and dams, levees and ports — problems that no one city could solve on its own.
The Northeast-Midwest Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, launched the initiative, basing it on a similar endeavor focused on the Great Lakes region a decade ago, said Colin Wellenkamp, director of the initiative. The Walton Family Foundation provided $250,000 in start-up funds.
“The Institute looked at the Mississippi and saw a lot of the same issues — scales of economy issues and ecological problems— that the Great Lakes suffered from,” he said.
Organizing began in February with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay the first to sign on.
“Each and every one of us have been addressing the challenges and the opportunities that the river brings to our communities independently,” Slay said. “But certainly as a collective force and one united voice we’ll be much more effective. Too much of our nation’s well-being depends on the river to not act.”
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About 40 percent of the country drains into the Mississippi basin. The river provides drinking water for more than 18 million people, and it directly supports 1 million jobs, Slay said.
An initial focus for mayors will be urging Congress to pass the five-year farm bill, which contains disaster relief and a new insurance program that could better protect against drought. They’re also planning a trip to Capitol Hill early next year and will press legislators and federal agencies for policies that will protect communities against flooding and improve the river’s environmental health.
Hyram Copeland, mayor of Vidalia, a small river town about 100 miles north of Baton Rouge, said he’s eager to get started.
Just in the past year, Copeland’s city has endured flooding, drought and the remnants of Hurricane Isaac. In fact, low water levels this year have meant the city’s hydroelectric plant is running at just 20 percent of capacity, costing the city as much as $6 million.
“We’re going to be there with hat in hand and tell them how important this river is right here in our communities,” he said.