AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
As for life on the Mississippi, it's been a rough year. Drought, low water and now record high water; those are just some of the many problems facing barge operators, farmers and environmentalists.
Those stakeholders met recently in Chicago to discuss the Mississippi's most pressing needs, as NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm standing here at the mouth of the Chicago River at the loch connecting it to Lake Michigan. This is where water from the Great Lakes drains into the Mississippi River system. The reversal of the Chicago River here over a century ago created a vital shipping link between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. And today, 60-percent of the nation's agricultural exports move by barge up and down the Mississippi River system, as do billions of dollars worth of petroleum, coal, steel and other commodities.
It's a critical lifeline for the nation's economy but one not without problems.
DEL WELKINS: One is infrastructure.
SCHAPER: Del Wilkins is with the Canal Barge Company, which operates barges and tows all throughout the Mississippi River system. And by infrastructure, he means lochs and dams, canal walls, floodwalls and levees
WELKINS: Infrastructure is old. It's crumbling.
SCHAPER: Wilkins says one barge can carry the freight equivalent of 144 trucks or 46 rail cars. Yet, the nation's water infrastructure, he says, is generally left out of the transportation funding conversation in Washington, until there's a crisis. And over the last two years, the Mississippi River has endured two near-catastrophes.
Major General John Peabody is commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
MAJOR GENERAL JOHN PEABODY: The extremes that this nation has faced in the heartland from the largest recorded flood in the history of the lower Mississippi River, which is pretty astonishing, to the worst drought in over 50 years and all the challenges that brings. It's clearly focused political attention in a way that we haven't seen in quite a while on the issue of navigation.
SCHAPER: Those weather disasters led to the Corps blowing up a levee to operate a floodway one year. And then blowing apart underwater rock outcroppings to keep barges from running aground the next.
There are almost constant dredging needs up and down the river. There are not only issues with the lochs and dams, but some levees may not withstand the next great flood. And then there's the battle against invasive species such as the Asian carp. And all of the channeling of the Mississippi up-river is diverting fresh water and vital sediment away from the wetlands in the river's Louisiana delta.
The state's Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne says that's got to stop.
LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR JAY DARDENNE: We're steadily losing Louisiana's coastline, the equivalent of a football field of land in less than an hour, literally. And that's just going to accelerate if something is not done.
SCHAPER: Others problems along the Mississippi include industrial pollution, as well as farm chemical and nutrient run off, affecting water quality all the way down to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And while the Mississippi River is the lifeblood of a huge swath of the nation's economy, it's also a life source for nearly half of the nation's migratory birds, a quarter of our fish species and the source of drinking water for millions of residents.
Again, Lieutenant Governor Dardenne.
DARDENNE: When you're talking about sustaining the river you have to look at it from an environmental standpoint, from an economic standpoint, from a navigation standpoint. And every aspect of life along that river affects every other aspect of life along the river.
SCHAPER: The problem is that there are so many divergent interests along the Mississippi and its tributaries across 31 different states.
VAL MARMILLION: Is that the system is so large, it intimidates cooperation.
SCHAPER: Val Marmillion is managing director of America's Wetland Foundation, and says, as a result, the Mississippi's problems are usually addressed only on a crisis by crisis basis.
Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute of Water Resources Law and Policy, agrees and says that's led to a Balkanized Mississippi River management.
MARK DAVIS: We don't treat it as though it's a river. For us, it's like a child that has, you know, 800 parents.
SCHAPER: And that, Davis says, leaves the river an orphan whose needs are not always funded as a priority.
America's Wetland Foundation is trying to create a coalition to speak on behalf of river issues with one voice. It also wants a compact among the Mississippi River states, similar to that signed by Great Lakes governors five years ago; one that protects the Mississippi River system for all the competing interests in it.
David Schaper NPR News Chicago.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.