Mississippi River getting more attention, but plan still needed for its future

State. Rep. Lindell F. Shumake, left, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and Clarksville Mayor Jo Anne Smiley react to a comment in a meeting about river issues held in Palmyra, Mo. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Posted: Apr. 6, 2013 5:45 pm Updated: Apr. 21, 2013 12:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

PALMYRA, Mo. -- U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt says the Mississippi River is getting more attention than it has in the past.

Area farmers and officials, who met with Blunt Saturday morning in Palmyra, hope to capitalize on that for better communication and cooperation on river issues from inspection to funding and river utilization.

"We've just been running by the seat of our pants. It would be nice if they could get a coordinated plan on these river issues so we know where to go and where we stand," said Doug Aeilts, who chairs the Mid-America Port Commission. "There's limited amount of dollars. Everyone appreciates that. Everyone appreciates the need to get the fiscal house in order in Washington, D.C., so where do you find that compromise? That's been a long-term problem. It's not going to have a short-term solution. It need to have a long-term solution."

Getting there may take a stronger focus on the river, something Blunt already is working toward after launching the Mississippi River Caucus earlier this year with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

"The senators have a growing appreciation that the river is an asset and the river is a challenge," Blunt said. "There's a recognition that the river is a much bigger asset than we have acted like it was for two decades now."

More help could come through the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a group pushing for a sustainable future for the river's region.

"One exciting thing about the caucus and MRCTI is we're looking at the whole thing -- uniform management infrastructure repair, maintenance, improvements," said Clarksville, Mo., Mayor Jo Anne Smiley, who serves on MRCTI's executive committee.

In the meantime, local river officials deal with challenges including periodic levee inspections with rigid checklists done every five years by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"For example, you can't have ruts on your levee. If you have a sand levee, it's impossible to drive on the levee without making a rut. Ruts are behind left by actual inspection vehicles, and districts are getting docked. They're docking districts serious money they could be putting toward real flood control," said Meagan Perry Kaiser, executive director of the Upper Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers Association.

Mike Reed, superintendent of the Sny Island Levee District, said it's important to have the corps' district offices more involved in the process. "The directives coming from D.C. to the district offices are unyielding, so rigid, so ridiculous and have nothing to do with the way the levee performs," he said.

Brent Hoerr, a Palmyra farmer and president of the Marion County Drainage District, stressed the need for more coordination along the river.

"We're all doing our own thing. We've been over the years pushing for how do we increase communication with the corps, which seems to be the agency in charge," Hoerr said. "Locally we like to prevent things rather than reacting."

Finding a better approach could benefit more than just Missouri and Illinois.

"This is the whole Midwest. We don't need another disaster to bring that forward," Reed said.

Blunt agreed the river has huge potential for the nation.

"If you use it intermodally, you really relive stress on other transportation systems, highways in particularly," he said. "It needs to be utilized in the best ways."

On a swing through Northeast Missouri on Saturday, Blunt said hearing from area residents, and seeing photos of erosion damage along the North River just west of Palmyra, provide real-life examples he can take back to the nation's capitol -- and emphasizes the need for local input into solutions to problems.

"Most problems aren't best solved in Washington, D.C. They're best solved closer to where the challenge really is," Blunt said. "More of that decision making that can have maximum local input, the more likely you're going to have a common sense solution."

Kaiser said something just needs to be done on river management.

"We do still need to come up with something," she said. "We will flood again. We need to diminish what happens to everyone from mitigation all the way down."