River Talk

May 2010 Archives

Of course, speaking in strict geographical terms, Washington DC and the Mississippi do not meet; the District is outside the Mississippi River watershed.

But speaking in terms of policy and economics, they meet--do they ever!

The ongoing legislation affecting the Mississippi is huge; in addition to the Water Resource Development Act (WRDA), River policy comes about through the Farm Bill, the regular transportation authorization, as well, of course, as the appropriations bills governing the disparate agencies that have an impact on the River.

Speaking purely personally, I have spent a good part of my career wishing I didn't have to think about Washington DC's impact on the Mississippi, preferring to believe that the "real work" happens out in the watershed, where thousands of local people put their best thinking and action efforts to making the Mississippi a cleaner, more sustainable river .And it's certainly true that all of that work is centrally important.

But the DC doings matter also.

Fortunately, the Northeast-Midwest Institute exists and does a fine job of tracking the ins and outs of key federal legislation for the river. The NEMWI is a private, nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization based in Washington DC. Its staff tracks many issues in addition to those involving the Mississippi:farm and food policy, energy, manufacturing, brownfields, urban revitalization, trade and the environment, all focused on economic vitality, environmental quality, and regional equity for states in the Northeast and Midwest.

People who are substantially involved in Mississippi River issues know that many of those issues--farm policy, brownfields, and urban revitalization just to name three--are intimately tied to the future of a sustainable Mississippi River.Other issues, such as climate change and issues facing American Indians are also part of the watershed's future. But the NEMWI is a good place to start in keeping track of federal legislation affecting the Mississippi in profound ways.

Fortunately, we out here in the watershed don't have to burn up our long distance bills or click onto the web site every day to keep up with Mississippi River news from the NEMWI. Policy analyst Mark Gorman posts regularly to a blogwhich contains key ideas, insights, and reflections on the future of the Mississippi.Of all the noise and static in the blogosphere, this is one of the clear notes of reason and information pertinent to our work. Check it out, or, better yet, subscribe to the blog's feed.

Rivers and World Water Issues

Close readers of global environmental news will have noted the increased attention to the impending water crisis. Every day billions of people lack enough water for basic needs and millions more, many of them women, must devote a large part of their day to securing adequate clean water.

But rivers would seem, almost de facto, to be in places that are well watered, right?Besides, of the water on the globe, that which is found in rivers is a minute amount (Bear with me here:as best I can tell from a recent diagram, river water constitutes 1.6% of the freshwater on the earth's surface and in the atmosphere, which in turn is 0.4% of the freshwater on the globe, which in turn comprises only 2.5% of Earth's total water--the other 97.5% being in the oceans).

So, for all of the rivers swollen by floods, and the enormous volume of water flowing from rivers such as the Amazon into the sea, river water is not "where the action is" in fresh water.

But rivers are "where the people are," which I will return to in another post.For now, I want to bring attention to a recent special report on water by The Economist "For Want of a Drink".The issue as a whole is, as might be expected, well written, closely documented, and highly informative on a broad array of water-related subjects.I want to highlight a few particularly river-related points:

  • Over a fifth of the world's freshwater fish species of a century ago are now endangered or extinct. ("For Want of a Drink" p. 3)
  • In many cases, depending on what the particular purpose of the impoundment is, small dams are more effective than large structures.Nevertheless, for many political and economic reasons, large structures remain on the drawing boards and under construction on some of the large rivers in Asia and Africa.River diversion projects such as the proposed South-North Water-Transfer Project in China add to the ways in which rivers are proposed to be altered in coming decades. (pp. 10 ff.)
  • In several cases, management of large rivers is an international issue:the main stem and tributaries of the Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine, and Zambezi each flow through 9-11 countries.The Danube flows through 19 (14).
  • There is reason for hope in the formation and maturation of groups such as the Mekong River Commission, the Nile Basin Initiative, and similar groups on the Danube, the Niger, and other large international rivers.All the member countries are not happy in any instance, certainly, but progress in communication at least is being made.For example, the Mekong River Commission's recent meeting included a high-ranking Chinese official even though China is not a member (15).
  • In 2007, analysts attempted to estimate the investment in water infrastructure that would be required both to repair obsolescent systems and meet growing demand in the US and Canada by 2030.The total: $6.5 trillion.

What does this all mean for our work at the River Life Partnership?As we think about the Mississippi as our "home river" or our "laboratory for the river and the watershed," the context of global water scarcity should never be too far from our considerations.Even though we seem at this point to be a well-watered region of the earth, forecasts for climate changes, population development, and future water usage should make us always mindful that river sustainability is our real goal.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.