Improving the health and future of the Mississippi River and the communities along its banks will be the goal of a new coordinated, regional initiative announced today.

Mayors from the headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico unveiled the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative during a news conference in Washington, D.C. The mayor-led initiative is a collective effort to evaluate the Mississippi River as one long continuous waterway and work to balance its ecological needs with its economic role.

During the conference call, members of Congress and the mayors also announced the formation of the Mississippi River Caucus, a bipartisan, bicameral congressional group that will work with the cities and towns initiative on various issues affecting the river. Among the speakers was U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Mayors from Minnesota, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin discussed the need for one voice and one effort along what they described as “America’s most critical natural asset.”

In addition to the caucus, the group outlined its platform, which will address and bring attention to everything from river navigation to environment issues, the creation of a national drought council and preserving the Pre-Disaster Mitigation program. The group wants federal resources focused on improving the antiquated lock and dam system as well as improving the Mississippi River’s water quality and addressing the aquatic invasive species that threaten the river.

The initiative, coordinated by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, is modeled after a similar effort created a decade ago — Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. It is funded by Walton Family Foundation.

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The mayors also opened a Mississippi River-focused art exhibit on Capitol Hill. The initiative partnered with arts organizations along the river to create the photography exhibit.

“The systemic problems faced by the Mississippi River’s communities are multi-jurisdictional, multifaceted, intergenerational and interconnected,” Mark Gorman, policy analyst for Northeast-Midwest Institute and Mississippi River Network member, said in a news release. “And they will only be understood and solved when our ways of thinking, planning and doing also become multi-jurisdictional, multifaceted, intergenerational and interconnected.”

The Mississippi River Network was founded in 2005 to raise public awareness of the Mississippi River’s issues and to provide a unified voice. The coalition is dedicated to protecting the Mississippi River for the well being of the land, water and people of America’s largest watershed.