WHAT OTHERS SAY: Time for river states to stop bickering and work together

Monday, December 10, 2012 | 2:55 p.m. CST

Imagine a bipartisan filibuster-proof 62-vote majority in the U.S. Senate.

A pipe dream?

Perhaps, but it's the underlying sentiment behind a very important meeting about the future of the Mississippi River system held last week in St. Louis. Finding a way to cobble together those 62 votes might be necessary to block an actual pipe carrying dreams of unlimited water from the Midwest to the semi-arid West.

Amid a massive drought gripping much of the country, and diminishing water flows in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers imperiling billions of dollars of economic activity, experts and political leaders studying the future of the management of those rivers — really part of one massive system affecting 31 states in its watershed — looked to the future.

It's a future that could mean water wars, pitting state against state, nation against nation. The meeting, called The Big River Lives, was put together by America's WETLAND Foundation. The Louisiana-based nonprofit has been instrumental in getting Gulf states, and competing business and environmental interests, to come together to protect the health of the Mississippi River and its delta.

The historic problem in Louisiana or Alabama is not much different from the one that Missouri has been fighting for a century with upper-basin states such as Montana and the Dakotas.

During flood, lower-basin states want water held back, while upper-basin states want to send it downriver. During drought, such as the one bringing river levels in St. Louis to near record lows, the reverse happens.

It's why every Missouri politician of statewide importance has been urging President Barack Obama to declare a state of emergency and force the Army Corps of Engineers to release water from upper basin Missouri River dams. That would allow levels of the Mississippi River in the St. Louis region to stay high enough to allow barges to carry grains and other goods down river for export.

"It's a messy soup," said Val Marmillion, managing director of America's WETLAND Foundation, in a meeting with the Post-Dispatch editorial board. "The water wars are going to start happening, and we need to get ahead of it."

Mr. Marmillion’s group is hoping to find success where nearly a century of other leaders have failed, getting the 31 Mississippi River basin states to agree to some sort of compact that elevates the importance of river issues. Until this happens, and the states stop bickering over parochial issues, funding for locks and dams will dry up, the health of the rivers will be diminished, and the economy will suffer.

All of that is happening right now.

It took Hurricane Katrina, a disaster of nearly unimaginable proportions, to get competing Gulf states to work together to protect their shores, and the mouth of the Mississippi, for future generations. But Mr. Marmillion knows that "we can't have a healthy delta without a healthy river."

Hence the series of five meetings throughout the basin, seeking a way to unite states more accustomed to fighting over the precious water in the nation's largest river system.

Here's a starting point: While Midwestern states have been fighting over who controls the faucet, Western states are uniting behind a common plan: diverting water from the Missouri River to serve growing populations that have already sucked the Colorado River basin dry.

As river officials met in St. Louis last week, the Bureau of Reclamation announced it would study the so-called Missouri River Reuse Project. The idea is to build a pipeline diverting Missouri River water to fill surface reservoirs and recharge aquifers along the Front Range in Colorado.

This is a serious threat. It should serve as an incentive for senators and governors from all 31 Mississippi River states to realize that the century-long policy of managing the river's resources by reacting to disaster is, and always will be, a fundamental failure.

In 1944, this editorial page championed the creation of a "Missouri Valley Authority" to serve as a federally created manager of the Missouri River basin. Instead, Congress chose a patchwork approach that has never worked. The basin states have continued to engage in a roller coaster of drought and flood battles, and the potential political power of the region has been dissipated.

What America's WETLAND Foundation is suggesting is the same sort of compact on a larger scale.

It's time. It's time for Missouri and Illinois, and Montana, and Iowa and Louisiana and Mississippi and 25 other states in the Mississippi River watershed to put their differences aside and find common ground to protect this valuable resource in the heartland of the nation.

Tomorrow's water wars will be like nothing we've ever seen. Without action — real, long-term, sustainable action — farms will dry up, barges will be docked, cities will die.

"This is all predictable," Mr. Marmillion said.

Yes, it is. The next flood will come, and a drought after that. Dams will fail. Disasters will occur.

The costs of inaction are too high and have been increasing exponentially for decades.

Imagine 62 votes in the U.S. Senate, protecting the lifeblood of the country, producing a lasting compact that forever shifts the balance of political power.

If the river economy is so damned important, why are we all still fighting among ourselves?

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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