ST. LOUIS — Mayors from more than three dozen communities along the Mississippi River are coming together in hopes of drawing attention — specifically that of federal lawmakers — to the challenges they face on the banks of the nation's largest waterway.
Forty-one mayors gathered in St. Louis this week for the inaugural meeting of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative. At a news conference Thursday, the mayors — from all 10 states that border the river — announced plans to develop an agenda over the next several months on several key issues, including drinking water, waterfront development, dredging and floodplain management.
They plan send a contingent to Washington next spring to convince lawmakers of the need for additional funding. The date of the meeting has not been set.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said uniting as one voice should better serve the needs of all river communities.
Managing a community along the mighty Mississippi has become harder in recent years, in large part because extreme weather has become more common, said A.C. Wharton, mayor of Memphis, Tenn. Last year, a severe flood caused part of his city to be under water. This year, the river is historically low due to the drought.
"So much of the folklore about the Mississippi River is it just rolls along," Wharton said. "But in some places it's rambunctious. We're up to whatever challenges the river brings."
Vidalia, La., is among the towns facing those challenges. The town of 4,500 residents has been affected by severe floods, a drought and a hurricane — all in the past year or so. Businesses along the water were saved in 2011, but the drought has been costly. Mayor Hyram Copeland said the city's hydroelectric plant is operating at just 20 percent capacity, costing the city millions of dollars.
Despite the river's literal ups and downs, "it's still our best asset," Copeland said.
In fact, the 2,350-mile river provides drinking water for 50 communities and 18 million people. The mayors say the river provides recreation and tourism and is economically vital.
Three-fifths of the nation's agricultural output and nearly a quarter of oil and natural gas are transported on the Mississippi. The river directly supports one million jobs, along with millions more indirectly, Slay said.
The idea for the initiative was borne from a similar effort for communities along the Great Lakes. Funding for the group is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, funded by the family of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. The river initiative is currently headquartered in Washington, but will eventually move to a city along the river.