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Planning For A Sustainable Mississippi River


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from the University of Missouri St. Louis at Grand Center, home of St. Louis Public Radio. T.S. Eliot, who grew up here, wrote a poem about the Mississippi, which flows about three miles from here.

The dry salvages begins: I do not know much about gods, but I think that the river is a strong brown god, sullen, untamed and intractable, patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier, useful, untrustworthy as a conveyor of commerce then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The Mississippi River drains of the largest, richest and most productive watersheds in the world. The river's tributaries drain the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania and the Rockies of western Montana. The stream itself runs from northern Minnesota down to the Gulf of Mexico. It's a vital transportation system for miners, farmers and industries of all kinds.

Millions rely on the river for drinking water. It's a rich fish and wildlife habitat, not to mention a resource for recreation. Sometimes these varied interests conflict. Last week, a summit here in St. Louis discussed ways to balance the demands on the river.

If the Mississippi River system runs through your life, tell us: How do you use the water? Our number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We're also taking questions from our audience here in St. Louis, and thanks, everybody, for coming in today. We appreciate it.


CONAN: Later in the program, singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter on her latest album and songs born of loss and grief, but first the mighty Mississippi. The mayor of St. Louis, Francis Slay, is here with us in the studios at St. Louis Public Radio. He chairs the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative and took part in last week's meeting, and Mr. Mayor, nice to have you with us today.

MAYOR FRANCIS SLAY: Good to be here.

CONAN: And what did you learn at that meeting that surprised you?

SLAY: Well first of all, I was here to - as a chairman of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. And what I wanted to do was connect with those - with that organization to make sure that they know that we're all working for the same thing, that we need to collaborate to help improve the river, to bring more attention to Mississippi River, to really showcase the importance of this river not just for the Midwest and the 10 states that touch it but the importance of the river for the entire nation.

CONAN: And it can't be overestimated. The river is a vital artery.

SLAY: It is amazing. You know, we go about our daily lives, and, you know, we all go home, and we've got families, and we're in business, and we drive up and down the streets, and we cross over the bridges, and a lot of times we don't really - we take for granted the river. We don't really appreciate it as much as we should.

And we don't realize enough he important impact this river has on all of our lives, whether it's from an environmental standpoint, whether it's a source of drinking water or irrigation water, whether it's a riverway for a tremendous amount of traffic. One hundred million tons of cargo pass by the Arch every year.

That is a tremendous amount of cargo. And then of course there are those who use it for recreation. And then we have an impact. We're all impacted by the river when there's a tremendous drought, or there is a flood. And we've had our share of those, as well.

CONAN: And one this year and one the last, the drought this year, the flood the previous year. And almost all of those interests find themselves here in the city of St. Louis. You get your drinking water from the Mississippi River. Commerce is vital to your economy. The river is an important resource in terms of recreation. In terms of your identity, it's who you are.

SLAY: That's absolutely right. That's why St. Louis was founded on the river for a lot of reasons. It's convenient. It's easy to get to and away from. And also it is an important resource for people, as I said, drinking water and sustenance. So we really are very proud of the river, and we want to - what we want to do is get a lot of mayors together up and down the river.

There's - there are 124 mayor-led cities up and down the river that we are soliciting to join our effort. I'm co-chair with Mayor Kleis of St. Cloud, Minnesota, of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. It's funded by the Walton Family Foundation, and we've just gotten started.

We met about three weeks ago in St. Louis and had FEMA with us. We had people from the Army Corps, EPA and a lot of other individuals who have knowledge about the river and can help us with an agenda going forward in Washington to help bring more focus to the river and to improve it and to make it more sustainable for all the uses that we talked about.

CONAN: And all that sounds great, and of course everybody's got to share this amazing resource, but not everybody's interests coincide. There's farmers who use the river for a lot of different things, irrigation water, and they also use it for shipping, but they also have a lot of runoff that affects the drinking water downstream.

Everybody wants to use the river to say the wildlife is wonderful except we've got to make sure there's enough water in the shipping channel to get the produce downstream. The interests of New Orleans are not necessarily those of St. Cloud.

SLAY: Yeah, that's true, but we have a lot of common interests that we need to work together and deal with. And we felt that the stars have aligned here recently because we have General Walsh at the Army Corps of Engineer announced he's going to try to create a more sustainable corps and to work more closely with the communities along the river.

We've had the BP oil spill, which really did raise awareness of the important of the environmental components of the river and how important it is and what can happen. We've had over the past 400 days hurricanes, floods and a 50-year drought that have impacted cities all over.

And of course, you know, when one city upriver does something, that may affect something that's going on downriver, so we believe that we all have common interests that we can work on together and that we need to put together an agenda and work together in Washington to bring more focus to the river and ideas of what we can do to improve it.

CONAN: If the Mississippi River or any of its tributaries, its many tributaries, flow through your life, how do you use the water? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's get a caller on the line. We'll start with Dan(ph), and Dan's with the line with us from Beloit in Wisconsin.

DAN: Yes, great subject. My parents actually own a hotel on the Mississippi River in Genoa, Wisconsin. It's called the Big River Inn. And the Mississippi River feeds their business. It's a stone's throw away from the river, and fishing spot, one of the bigger spots in Wisconsin, big walleye spot. It's right there by the locks where the barges go through. So that's a big site for them, too. A lot of people go there to see the locks.

And if anything changes, the Army Corps of Engineers go there quite a bit. They're talking about changing the locks and the dam around, and if some of that stuff happens, it could really hurt the fishing industry there, therefore hurting the whole town.

CONAN: It's interesting you mention both the recreational and the tourist aspects of it, the restaurant and the fishing hole and the locks, which of course are an important commerce part. Beloit, if I'm not mistaken, manufactures a lot of paper-making machinery, correct?

DAN: Correct, yeah. They sure do, right down there.

CONAN: Not always the cleanest of neighbors, paper manufacturers.

DAN: Well, they create some of the tools for doing the paper, nothing else. There's no paper manufactured there.

CONAN: Well, there is in other places, though, that flow into the Mississippi, on the Tennessee River and various other places. And Mr. Mayor, that's part of the problem. You have people who need the river for different purposes, for cooling their electrical power plants, for paper manufacturing, for things that aren't necessarily compatible with the environment or with drinking water.

SLAY: Well, I think it's important that we - and you're absolutely correct. But it's important that we all realize, and I think it's important that we bring attention to this, that we all have an interest in the sustainability of this river so that it can be a - even a better source of commerce, as well as a river that is, from an environmental standpoint, is something that we can be proud of, as well.

So I think that's why this effort's important, and I do think people have a lot - there are a lot of people, and I guess interests are going to have ideas on what's important, but I think we need to, you know, bring everybody together as we go forward.

Mayors can be, I think, important brokers in this effort.

CONAN: Joining us now from Studio 3A in Washington is Gerald Galloway, a professor in the school of policy at the University of Maryland, retired brigadier general who served in the Army Corps of Engineers, also a former member of the Mississippi Rivers Commission. Nice to have you with us today.

GERALD GALLOWAY: Great to be with you. I just wish I were along the river.

CONAN: Well, we're not far from it, but - it's a beautiful studio, but so do we. It's a nice day here in St. Louis. I know you were also at that summit last week. Did anything surprise you?

GALLOWAY: I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was universal agreement that the Mississippi is important from its roots in the Missouri Basin and Montana to what comes out of New York state and flows all the way to New Orleans. I was even more pleasantly surprised to see that the various uses of the river that you described earlier, people seem to appreciate that we need to consider them together rather than independent silos.

For a long time, as the mayor has indicated, what happens in one part of the basin can affect another, and then one sector, whether it's agriculture or navigation, can affect the people downstream or the people in the immediate vicinity of what they're doing.

So at this meeting we began to see the first steps in moving toward an integrated approach to managing the waters of the Greater Mississippi Basin.

CONAN: Mr. Mayor, we're going to have to let you go in a minute, but I did want to ask that long view. Politicians are famous for taking a long view as far as, oh, November.


CONAN: Long views are sometimes difficult.

SLAY: Well, that's true, but I think the whole idea is put together a sustainable organization that creates a vision and is set - put together for longevity. And what this effort's about is bringing mayors to the table but also building partnerships with the various disciplines and the various organizations and interests that they have, that people have on the river, whether it's agriculture, whether it's industry, whether it's recreation.

All these individuals and organizations need to be at the same table, and we look at it, this organization, as mayors being the broker. We're on the ground every day. We're the ones who - we see this from a firsthand basis in terms of trying to create sustainable development on the riverfront and at the same time, you know, protecting the environment.

So anyway, I have a lot of high hopes for this, and hopefully we can do some good in Washington for the river and for the nation.

CONAN: Mayor Slay, thank you very much for being with us today.

SLAY: My pleasure.

CONAN: Francis Slay is the mayor of St. Louis, and he joined us here at the studios of St. Louis Public Radio, at the University of St. Louis at Grand Center. We're talking about the challenges of balancing the many demands on the Mississippi, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from St. Louis, just a few miles from where the Mississippi River runs past this city. Water from 31 states drains into the river, which supplies a lifeline for nearby residents, farmers, shippers and other businesses, many of them with competing interests and shared challenges.

Last month, hundreds of barges and dozens of vessels sat at a standstill when the busiest lock on the Mississippi River was shut down because of a structural failure, Lock 27 damaged due to low water levels from this year's record drought. And estimates show the industry lost some $14 million during a five-day closure. We'll talk with a barge operator in just a moment.

If the Mississippi River system runs through your life, call and tell us: How do you use the water? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. We're also going to be taking comments from our audience members here in St. Louis. Our guest is Gerald Galloway, who served many years in the Army Corps of Engineers, now a professor of engineering in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

And let's get a comment from the audience here in St. Louis.

JERRY MCADAMS: My name is Jerry McAdams(ph) from St. Louis. And as you said earlier, we take the river for granted, until you have a high school student, and everything that they talk about comes from the river, from Pierre Laclede on. And to watch the high school students get excited about going down and realizing that in the mid-1700s, this was a trapping village, and they were doing trading.

And to watch the high school students get involved and start to see where he landed and where the first developments were and how the city developed, it all comes from the river. It's an exciting part of living in St. Louis.

CONAN: Thanks very much for those remarks, and I'm sure there are many here who will endorse them. Joining us now is Mark Fletcher, he co-owns the Ceres Barge Line in East St. Louis, just cross the river, and he joins us in the studio. Nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: And what was the scene on that river when Lock 27 shut down?

FLETCHER: Well, you had a lot of traffic held up in either direction, probably 30 or 40 towboats, which carry many barges either direction, held up at any given time waiting for the Corps and the Coast Guard to decide how to resolve that issue, whether to allow traffic or whether to just go ahead and get the repair done and then free it up.

So they elected to do just that. I think it was a two-and-a-half, three-day shutdown.

CONAN: Now locks either take you from a lower level of water up to a higher one or vice versa. What does Lock 27 do?

FLETCHER: Well, Lock 27 connects just above St. Louis near Granite City, Illinois, and it connects the Illinois and the Missouri River watersheds, if you will, above that to the lower Mississippi. So literally all the traffic going to Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul or the Missouri River would have to pass through that lock.

CONAN: So this is a vital part of the system, a bottleneck.

FLETCHER: Yes, as well as Lock and Dam 26, they both would be in that same category.

CONAN: And there's another issue as I understand it, every year the dam - the water flow from the Missouri system is sharply reduced come the autumn.

FLETCHER: Well, there are certain times, depending on the amount of water that's collected in the four main-stem reservoirs on the upper end of the Missouri. And it seems to go in large cycles. I don't know if you recall five years ago, but we had a terrific dry spell on the upper Missouri, to the point where there were several businesses that could not get pleasure boats in and out of their marinas, if you will. It was a terrible drought.

And then of course last year we had probably a 60-, 50- or 60-year flood event on the upper end of the Missouri in particular, a large snowpack. So it does vary over the years. It's what we in the industry become accustomed to. But if you're not in the industry, I think you kind of overlook those issues.

CONAN: So the reliability of the river is not always there.

FLETCHER: No it's not, and - but again on an annual basis, the shipping is curtailed on the Missouri River because of those reduced water flows, which is back to your original point.

CONAN: And do those locks need to be upgraded?

FLETCHER: Well, I think, you know, a lot of the locks, particularly in the upper rivers, upper Mississippi River, are way past their design life, some of them 40, 50, 60 years old, probably. And so you're going to have these - if we don't address these infrastructure issues, you're going to continue to have these spot closures that create a terrific economic impact, as you cited earlier, as we do a temporary fix or some kind of emergency fix to try to allow traffic to pass.

CONAN: Gerry Galloway there in Washington, is this the Army Corps' problem?

GALLOWAY: It's the nation's problem to deal with the backlog in infrastructure repair and upgrading what we have. The American Society of Civil Engineers has pointed out that in its grading of our infrastructure, that we're at the D level and that we have about $2.5 trillion in backlog.

Sooner or later you have to pay the price. As I'm sure everyone recognizes, the Ohio River has locks on it, the upper Mississippi and other rivers in the United States, and they need to be repaired and, over time, upgraded. This hasn't been going on because of the lack of infrastructure funding. And so certainly that's an issue for the Corps, but it's an issue for the nation because the waterway is so important to the movement of commerce.

CONAN: Let's get a comment from the audience here in St. Louis.

SUSAN: Yes, my name is Susan(ph), and I have a very personal story to tell you. My husband at one time was very much involved in the grain and barge business. And in the process, many barges were bought, and one of those that was bought was called the Suzie-Q, named after me.

Well, it was doing quite well going up and down the river, and we were getting dividends from that until the big flood, when what landed on land miles away from the river by my barge, the Suzie-Q. So we watched this barge day after day after day. It couldn't - it was much too expensive to drag it back to the river. They had to wait for months until the river was - until the land underneath was such a situation that they actually could begin to move the barge.

But in the meantime, not only wasn't the income so much, but it was watching my poor barge and me suffer, seeing what was happening to the barge, which then had to be fixed, and seeing that of course no income was coming until that barge went back in the river. And then, of course, it had to be repaired.

But that was quite an experience for all of us.

CONAN: And where's the Suzie-Q today?

SUSAN: Suzie-Q today is now back on the river.

CONAN: Well, good.



CONAN: Mark Fletcher, that story, I suspect it's not in isolation.

FLETCHER: Well, it's not, and what Susan doesn't know is I used to work with her husband quite a long time ago.


FLETCHER: So I do know Ben(ph) quite well. But no, it's not necessarily an isolated event. You know, the flood of '93 created lot of those issues in recent memory and then Katrina-related issues, for us particularly, created a lot of issues. We had a barge somewhat similar to what she described that was pushed up in a 16- or 18-foot surge on the Lower Mississippi and was on top of a levy. So it took us about 90 days to get folks out of the way so we could get to our barge.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to line seven, and Ann(ph) is on the line with us from Columbus, in Ohio, where we're going to be next week, by the way. But Ann, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

ANN: Yes, I was - hello, can you hear me?

CONAN: You're on the air.

ANN: I have a question: Why don't they use more low-head dams that have culverts faced in the bottom of these low-head dams which would allow fish movement back and forth and also keep streams (unintelligible) and clear instead of silting up? And then also start a buyoff of irrigation...?

CONAN: One thing at a time. It sounds like you know something about this.

ANN: My first paying job was with Corps of Engineers.

CONAN: All right, well, Gerald Galloway, could you translate what she just said?

GALLOWAY: Well, it's how do you protect the river when there's a mass of water coming down, or how do you hold water back for a lock and dam that's going to be part of a navigation system. There are many ways to do this. The thoughts that were just expressed were really talking about smaller rivers, where you have some sort of retarding function when the water is racing down to keep it from getting to the main river and filling that river up too quickly.

People are using many techniques, especially off farm fields and on smaller streams, to slow down the movement, to ensure that the sediment goes to the right place. But that's one of your conflicts. Sediments is needed in many parts of the streams and certainly needed in the river itself downstream.

So you balance all of these off. In this particular case, I think it's a matter of trying to figure out for a particular area, what would be best, and working with the local people, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, figuring out what will help the area the most.

CONAN: And Ann, you had another point?

ANN: Well, this also does retard and recharge groundwater on the upper part, which would essentially to the streams flowing longer. And this did not happen in western Kansas. And I am afraid that the practices, such as irrigation, non-controlled flooding and stuff, you're just making the drought-flood cycle worse.

CONAN: And that's a situation that, Gerard Galloway, a lot of people are asking about. As we see weather patterns seemingly become more erratic and more one way or the other, a lot of drought one year - this year. As we heard earlier, a lot of flooding the previous year, that's sort of - that makes life difficult for everybody, doesn't it?

GALLOWAY: It certainly does, and we're seeing more extreme events. The insurance industry and the reinsurance industry have been analyzing this for the last decade, and there have been billion-dollar disasters occurring, ranging from the drought to the big floods of 2011 that were not only in the Mississippi-Missouri, but were in places like Australia and Thailand. So it is a problem.

Can we put our finger on and say it's related to climate change or any other particular natural phenomena? They're not able to do that yet. But it does say that as people move closer to the water, as people put themselves in harm's way, and property is more expensive and we have more people with expensive property, then we're going to have opportunities to have more disasters.

So the idea is to start thinking about if this is going to be the case - more floods or more drought - what are we going to do about it? And begin to plan to become more resilient to these disasters, take steps before they occur that make them - the impact of floods or the impact of droughts less severe.

CONAN: Mark Fletcher, you're a barge operator. You got 200 to 250 barges on the Mississippi, the Ohio and the Illinois. We're talking about all these competing interests on the river. Is there any one of them that you - just drives you crazy?


FLETCHER: Well, I guess the one that drives you crazy is the last one to affect you.


FLETCHER: So in this year - in this case, it was drought this year. But again, these are all events that we can't control, we deal with. We try to manage through them as best as we can. Last year was the flood. As you know, we did an unprecedented event down at Bird's Point by blowing some levees down there to allow some relief to the city of Cairo.

CONAN: Farmers were thrilled with that.

FLETCHER: Not exactly. But the city of Cairo or Cairo - however you pronounce it - in Illinois was very thrilled. So you're right. That's a prime example of competing interests exactly right there: the farmers on the Missouri side, primarily, of the river, versus the Illinois side of the river.

The issues that do drive us probably crazy as an industry are funding issues, as was talked about earlier. You take a 10-year project like Olmsted Lock and Dam, and it continually seems like it's starting and stopping. And so it's - I don't know what its original projected cost was. But let's say if it was 300 million, it ends up being a billion by the time we're done, or more. And it's just frustrating to the industry that we cannot get these projects funded on a project basis, rather than through annual appropriations, as it appears to be happening to me.

CONAN: Just lobby Congress. I'm sure they'll fix that in a jiffy.

FLETCHER: Well, we certainly have no shortages of folks that are trying to do that, I guess. But, you know, again, the competing interests are tough for everybody to sort out. You know, it's an industry filled with people that are conservationists at heart, is what I would point out. There's no greater conservationists than the people that use the river every day, because they see the impact of it, you know, a lot of hunters, a lot of fishermen themselves, including myself.

So it's not that the industry isn't sensitive to the environment, but we do try to balance the daily needs of operating a business, running it profitably so we can pay our employees and so that the industries along the river can employ their employees, like steel mills and things like that.

CONAN: You're here today in a nice suit and tie. Would an ordinary day at work find you out on the river?

FLETCHER: We don't - you know, our business is such that we use a lot of vendors that serve us on the river. So I'm not out on the river every day. So I am very careful to choose my words when I speak on behalf of a towboat pilot or a captain, because I haven't been in their shoes, per se. But our business is more of an office environment, and indeed, T-shirt and cutoffs are the norm of the day.

CONAN: We're talking with Mark Fletcher, co-owner of Ceres Barge Line in East St. Louis. And also with us is Gerald Galloway, professor of engineering in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. We're talking about the Mississippi River. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And there's a caller - questioner, excuse me, here in the studio audience in St. Louis.

MARY ANNE: Hi. My name is Mary Anne(ph), and years ago, I spent more than a week traveling along the rivers. And we're very fortunate here. We have, in the St. Louis area, the confluence of the Missouri, the Illinois and the Mississippi.

So we started our trip, and it was during a high water, as Mr. Fletcher had mentioned that it was during a flood season. We were in a fairly small boat. We started down the Missouri, then we got into Illinois River into the Mississippi, travelled down to Mississippi all the way to the Ohio River and over to Kentucky Lake.

And it was fascinating. It was magical, and it was really life-changing. And a lot of it was to see the other people along the river that were farming along the river, that were on the rivers, on the barges, the towboats and the tugboats and all the wildlife. And it was just truly a magnificent experience, and I think we're so fortunate to have the rivers right here on our - just as Neal Conan said, three miles away.

CONAN: Thank you very much. And, Gerald Galloway, she raised an important point about the wildlife, the animals, the fish and everything else that was here a long time before we were - at least most of them that didn't come from China in the past 10 years. But who speaks for them in this debate? What about their concerns?

GALLOWAY: Well, I think that there's a lot of people that speak for them. There are very many environmental groups, non-governmental organizations that take a very strong interest in what goes on. They are part of the process. I think the Corps of Engineers, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, other government agencies strive, as much as possible, to be careful with what they do to develop their plan so that they provide sustainability for fish and wildlife, recognizing that this river is so valuable. And it stretches up to the headwaters in Montana and in New York. And we have to recognize that it's going to take a careful, long-term approach to ensure that as you develop something new, at the same time, you're taking care of those fish and wildlife resources that you've mentioned.

The river is a wonderful habitat. And as you get farther south, the size of the river increases. There's batture land, land between the levees and the river, that is a wonderful habitat for all sorts of fish and wildlife. The cooperation between federal agencies and state agencies is growing every year. In the upper Mississippi, the same sort of programs exist. So I think there's a spotlight on ensuring that the environment is considered in all the decisions, but the same problems that Mark Fletcher mentioned also apply to the environment. You don't always get the resources, the funding you need from Washington to carry out the types of activities that need to be accomplished.

CONAN: Gerald Galloway, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

GALLOWAY: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Mark Fletcher, appreciate your coming in to talk us about the barge industry. Thanks very much.

FLETCHER: Anytime. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks to all of you who called and wrote in. We're sorry we couldn't get to all of your calls. Up next, a performance by Mary Chapin Carpenter, her new album, she says, fed by grief and pain. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.