Mayors press for federal focus on Mississippi River

Thursday, March 21, 2013 | 5:49 p.m. CDT; updated 7:21 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 21, 2013

ST. LOUIS — Mayors from communities along the Mississippi River said Thursday that they would work with federal lawmakers to sharpen the national focus on the waterway after two years in which shipping has been threatened by flooding and then drought.

Looking to wield more clout on river matters, about a dozen mayors from Minnesota to Louisiana gathered in Washington to announce the formation of their Mississippi River Platform, which will focus on water quality, community development and drought and flood preparation.

The Mississippi River's importance is undeniable, as it supplies millions of people with drinking water and serves as a vital shipping corridor for everything from corn and grain to coal, petroleum and manufactured goods.

"The Mississippi River supports the highest level of commercial traffic in the world, but it's in trouble and needs our help," St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said.

As members of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative, the mayors will collaborate with the new Mississippi River Caucus — a bipartisan group of Capitol Hill lawmakers — on issues related to the river.

"You have mayors with cities along the river who will speak with one voice," A.C. Wharton, the mayor of Memphis, Tenn., told The Associated Press by phone. "What we're saying is there may be a few differences, but for every difference there are 99 commonalities."

The river attracted attention over the winter as the stubborn drought reduced water levels to near-record lows between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill. Barges cut their loads so they could ride higher in the water, and there were worries that shipping would be halted altogether.

Several local, state and federal lawmakers expressed dismay in November when the Army Corps of Engineers reduced the flow from an upper Missouri River dam. The move helped maintain water levels in the upper Missouri River but worsened the plight of the Mississippi, which the Missouri feeds into at St. Louis.

At that time, the corps said it was required to act in the Missouri River's interest to comply with a document authorized by Congress known as the Missouri River Master Manual. No similar document exists for the Mississippi.

The mayors' group wants a Water Resources Development Act to safeguard the Mississippi. It also wants federal funds to improve water quality and the establishment of a National Drought Council. In addition, mayors are pushing for the formation of a federal initiative to help local governments deal with invasive species that have infected the river, such as Asian carp, and the passage of a comprehensive farm bill.

Federal lawmakers led by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, introduced two measures last week that Mississippi River states deem critical to the river's health.

The Mississippi River Navigation Sustainment Act would allow the corps to operate and dredge in more areas, provide for the installation of automated river-level monitors, and set up a conservation and habitat-restoration project for the river's middle stretch. The other measure would establish a pilot program allowing the corps to work with private interests to carry out as many as 15 high-priority, large-scale navigation projects over five years. That bill is considered important because the corps says its backlog of roughly $60 billion in outstanding projects would otherwise take decades to complete.

Durbin has noted that an American Society of Civil Engineers report card released every four years came out this week and gave a D-plus grade to the condition of inland waterways, levees and ports.

"We all know that there will be a next crisis, probably sooner rather than later," Durbin told the Waterways Council trade group on Wednesday, stressing that the Mississippi has seen both flooding and drought in two years.

"We can't wait decades to make the changes that are going to be needed," he said.

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