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Mayors and congressional leaders from up and down the Mississippi River united Thursday to draw attention to the critical role that the nation’s largest waterway plays in the economy, transportation and the environment.

A dozen mayors representing cities ranging from the Mississippi’s headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico joined six congressmen at a news conference to announce the formation of the Mississippi River Caucus. The new bipartisan, bicameral congressional group will collaborate to address a variety of issues facing the Mississippi River and those who live and work along it.

During the media event in Washington, D.C., the mayors — all members of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative — also unveiled their Mississippi River Platform. The mayor-led initiative, which kicked off last summer in St. Louis, was created to provide a coordinated voice for the river and spearhead a new level of regional cooperation on issues impacting the river.

Mayors from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin discussed the need for one voice and one effort along what they described as “America’s most critical natural asset.” Among the congressional members at the news conference was Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Harkin, who will retire after this term, was the first of several speakers to highlight the need to address the Mississippi’s aging lock and dam system.

“I don’t think we can wait another 50 years,” he said, adding that the river has many stakeholders.

In their policy platform, the mayors outlined the need to address everything from river navigation to environmental issues, the creation of a National Drought Council to funding the existing Pre-Disaster Mitigation program. The group wants federal resources to focus on improving the locks and dams, improving water quality and fighting the aquatic invasive species that threaten the river.

St. Cloud, Minn., Mayor David Kleis, the initiative’s co-chair, said the group has grown to more than 45 mayors along the Mississippi River. “This is a whole river effort,” he said.

“If the river closes for just one day, the loss to the U.S. economy is $300 million,” he said. “Clearly, the stakes are high on this river.”

Memphis, Tenn., Mayor A.C. Wharton discussed how last summer brought “one of the worst droughts this country has ever witnessed. We’re going to feel the consequences of that for a long time,” he said, referring to its impact on food prices. “Yet as we stand here today, our nation has not yet developed a national drought policy.”

The mayors hope that the coordinated effort will give the river the attention it deserves as well as raise awareness of its critical role in transporting goods within the country as well as out to the world.

“If we have a bridge fail, we replace it. If we have a lock fail, we close it,” Natchez, Miss., Mayor Larry Brown said. “We must take stock and reinvest in the oldest infrastructure in all of our country.”

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

“We will be working with the caucus to increase its membership so the Mississippi River has a powerful and ever-present voice here on Capitol Hill,” said Dubuque, Iowa, Mayor Roy Buol, the only Iowa mayor attending the news conference.

Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba also is a member of the mayor-led initiative. He said Thursday the group is “off to a really good start” and was pleased to hear about the congressional caucus forming.

The caucus, Gluba said, is an idea he recommended when the mayors met last summer in St. Louis. Its creation, he added, “will get the congressional delegation from districts up and down the river … to think of themselves as a group” as they tackle issues related to the river.

In addition to Harkin, these Quad-City legislators have joined the caucus: Reps. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, and Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill.