Caucus first step toward workable river solutions

Posted: Feb. 11, 2013 9:27 am Updated: Mar. 4, 2013 11:15 am


TWO MIDWESTERN United States senators are taking the lead in forming a congressional panel that will encourage commerce and address vital issues such as flood mitigation and navigation concerns along the Mississippi River.

Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa last week announced the creation of the bipartisan Mississippi River Caucus, which will consist of senators from the 10 states impacted the most by the river.

The goal, Blunt said in a statement, is for the group to work together to help "maintain the river channel, which has a critical impact on jobs, income to many businesses and farmers, and the economy of the region as a whole."

The senators should be commended for taking the initiative in the wake of a catastrophic drought to put aside parochial issues to strive to improve the economies and quality of life of the communities along the nation's longest waterway.

The Mississippi River stretches approximately 2,350 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Barges transport billions of tons of cargo up and down the river each year, including 20 percent of the country's coal and more than 60 percent of its grain exports and other agricultural products.

Low water from an ongoing drought has been plaguing river navigation since early last year in the middle and lower portions of the Mississippi. The river dropped so low last summer near Memphis, Tenn., that barges ran aground and their operators were forced to lighten loads.

There has been considerable concern in recent months that a 180-mile stretch between St. Louis and the southern tip of Illinois would become too shallow to carry barge traffic and effectively shut down the river, but so far that has not materialized.

Too much rain was the problem two springs ago as those living and working along the river south from St. Louis had to contend with devastating flooding -- an all-too-frequent occurrence the past 20 years.

One of the chief issues the caucus needs to address is the relationship between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Blunt in December said the Army Corps of Engineers needs to better manage "friction" between the interests of the upper basin of the Missouri and the lower Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

That observation came after the controversial decision to maintain reservoir levels in the upper reaches of the Missouri River rather than release some of the stored water to provide better flows of navigation downstream. The Missouri River empties into the Mississippi just north of St. Louis.

That decision angered those along the drought-riddled Mississippi because the decision to build the reservoirs years ago was justified on the basis that they could be used to help with flood control and navigation. Instead, the interests of those in the upper west is to have that stored water more available for recreational purposes, even it means imperiling billions of dollars of commerce on the Mississippi.

"We learned a vital lesson this past fall when a potential disruption in navigation along the Mississippi threatened everything from increasing the cost to move goods to potential job losses," Harkin said. "The river and its communities play an important role in commerce and the local economy."

It took Hurricane Katrina, a disaster of epic proportions, for leaders in states along the Gulf of Mexico to finally decide to work together to better protect their shores.

The initiative by Blunt, Harkin and others is a proactive step to open dialogue and promote action to protect the vital interests of the Mississippi River before a disaster of similar scope strikes.