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Mississippi River mayors rally for a compact to protect the waterway

At the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative’s (MRCTI) annual meeting this week in Bemidji, Minnesota, about 30 mayors unanimously voted in favor of pursuing a compact that would span more than 2,300 miles of river.

aerial of river
The Mississippi River is photographed from an airplane near Guttenberg, Iowa, on May 25, 2023. Aerial support provided by LightHawk.
Drake White-Bergey for Wisconsin Watch

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

A coalition of Mississippi River mayors want a 10-state compact that would establish collective management of the waterway.

At the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative’s (MRCTI) annual meeting this week in Bemidji, Minnesota, about 30 mayors unanimously voted in favor of pursuing a compact that would span more than 2,300 miles of river. It’s the first step of what could be a lengthy process.

MRCTI’s executive director, Colin Wellenkamp, said a compact among the core states bordering the river would be a way to think about river management at watershed-scale, from the headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, and coordinate during events affecting the whole river, like drought and flooding.

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Lacking an overall management structure makes it difficult to address multi-state issues like reducing runoff into the river, which ultimately contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

A compact could provide legal protections for Mississippi River resources, such as the vast amount of water the river drains from 31 states and two Canadian provinces.

“Quite frankly, law and hydrology are not really on speaking terms,” said Mark Davis, director of Tulane University’s Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy in New Orleans. He and his team study Mississippi River management issues.

Davis likened the water in the Mississippi River to a baton in a relay race; management changes with each of the 10 states it flows past, not including the other 21 states that feed into the river.

“One of the first questions is going to be: if this water is essential to prosperity and growth, whose? Should it be those who dream about it in dry places, or those who are next to it?” Davis said.

As parched states in the West grapple with drought and water scarcity, there have been renewed efforts to pump Mississippi River water west. But Wellenkamp said their concern lies with “anyone that wants to put a straw in the Mississippi,” not just western states.

Old idea, new strategy

Mississippi River states, whether altogether or in regional groups, have taken multiple stabs — some short-lived and others long-standing — at collective management: an attempted compact in the 1980s that crumbled before it gained much momentum; a decades-old coalition of upper river states that confers on connected issues; and an ecological restoration program approved last year for the lower basin.

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MRCTI has even supported a slate of legislation called the Safeguarding the Mississippi River Together Act, which pushed for a unified river management plan and a national office. When it stalled, they turned to other policy avenues, like the Farm Bill and the Water Resources Development Act.

Other recent efforts at collective river management, including one called the Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative, stalled out in Congress.

Wellenkamp said this compact could provide a legal mechanism to prevent water from the Mississippi from being shipped elsewhere.

But passing such a compact is easier said than done. MRCTI’s vote Thursday was the first step in a lengthy process, and any compact with legal teeth would require approval from Congress.

They’ll have to get buy-in from all 10 mainstem river states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana — and politics, economics and special interests all come into play.

This time around, the mayors are looking to the Great Lakes Compact as a model.

In that region, eight states and two Canadian provinces established principles for water management and a requirement to notify and consult other members before diverting large amounts of water. Over the course of more than three decades, the states and provinces updated the agreement until landing on a 2008 compact with specific protections against diversions and withdrawals.

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Unprecedented times

Davis said the Great Lakes states didn’t necessarily share a common vision at the onset, but they agreed on something fundamental: they didn’t want their water sent to just anyone with a checkbook.

“One way or another, water will find its way to a user, and there won’t be enough for everyone,” Davis said.

Wellenkamp said a Mississippi River compact would be similar to the Great Lakes agreement in terms of geographic scope, and he likes that it isn’t overly prescriptive. But he said there’s a key difference: they’re trying to develop a Mississippi River compact in the face of severe climate threats.

“We are highly motivated by recent disasters and highly motivated by recent climate impacts that the Great Lakes did not have,” he said.

The mayors’ vote of support is the first step in a process that Wellenkamp, who wouldn’t venture to guess how long this process might take, said will prevent the states from paying the price down the road.

“For the first time in many years,” Davis said, “the cities and towns along the Mississippi are starting to understand that they are next to a gem, and if they don’t value it, someone else will.”