River Action Inc. has organized Upper Mississippi River conferences for nine years now, but the one coming up Oct. 14-15 at the iWireless Center, Moline, is going to be different.
That's because just as last year's event was getting under way, a national watershed group issued a "report card" for the Mississippi River that gave it a D+. That was a blow to organizers and attendees who have been working for years to boost the river's health.
So Kathy Wine, executive director of River Action, the Davenport-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring the Mississippi, decided this year's conference would be dedicated to "Raising the Grade."
All participants will be asked to work together on the second day of the conference to develop action plans on actually improving the river.
Helping conference attendees with this work — difficult, and a departure from the norm — will be Heath Kelsey of the University of Maryland, who helped develop the D+ report card for America's Watershed Initiatives.
His overriding message is that everyone with a stake in the river, from barge companies to fishermen to farmers who want levees for flood protection, need to work together to improve the river.
That might seem obvious, but that isn't how it's been.
"The status quo has been that each one (of the various interests) would pursue strategies for that one sector, but not necessarily taking into account the effect of the other," Kelsey said in a telephone interview.
"We can't keep doing that because we're not making headway. With multiple goals, we're asking a lot of this river. The idea is to all get together on a shared vision. We're certain there are strategies we can do that don't have to work at cross purposes."
His hope is that the solutions will rely on "natural infrastructure," or using the river's natural systems, to improve the river in terms of water quality, flood reduction and other interests.
The report card released last year graded the river in seven categories: transportation (the aging locks and dams); flood control (levee conditions); ecosystems (water quality, streamside habitat, wetlands); water supply (water depletion, treatment); recreation (outdoor participation); economy (river-dependent employment); and Gulf hypoxia.
A category of big concern was the condition of the locks and dams that initiative members called a threat to the nation's economy. The aging infrastructure weakens the country's ability to reliably and efficiently move and export food and goods. A recent study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, cited by Wine, indicated that 52 percent of the nation's corn and 41 percent of its soybeans is shipped on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
Among environmentalists, the locks and dams likely would be lower on the list of concerns, with water quality and the "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico at the top.
Developing strategies for multiple goals won't be easy, but it is the only way to make progress, Kelsey said.
The watershed group's next report card will be issued in 2020.