Congress has approved $40 million for ecological restoration in the lower Mississippi River — the first federal program of its kind for the 1,000-mile swath of river downstream of Cape Girardeau, Mo. Environmental advocates have been lobbying for something like it for years, following suit with a decades-old counterpart in the upper basin.

The program passed with the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) in December, which authorizes flood control, navigation and ecosystem restoration projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects. It’ll be up for appropriations later this year.

The Lower Mississippi River Basin demonstration program will prioritize projects in some key areas: aquatic ecosystem restoration and flood risk. It will prioritize projects that improve water quality, reduce hypoxia or use natural infrastructure. 

Non-federal entities, such as state agencies and environmental advocacy groups, will be able to apply for project funding; the Corps will front 75% of the cost and assist with design and construction. 

An aerial photo from October 2022 shows low river levels around Tower Rock on the Mississippi River at Grand Tower, Ill. Credit: Reece Streufert, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Corps still has two years to sort out the parameters for eligible projects and outline the application process. The agency will work in cooperation with the secretary of the interior and the secretary of agriculture, along with the leadership of other agencies and states. 

The program was initially part of the Safeguarding the Mississippi River Together Act, or the SMRT Act, a river-wide management proposal championed by the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI), a coalition of more than 100 mayors along the river. 

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS ) introduced the SMRT Act in 2021, but when it stalled in committee, Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) folded the lower river program into WRDA instead. 

Mayor Jim Strickland
Jim Strickland

Jim Strickland, mayor of Memphis and co-chair of MRCTI, said the program “will help our cities become more disaster resilient” as the river emerges from a historic drought that shut down barge traffic — an event that earth scientists at the University of Memphis said was a preview of a climate-altered future.

“Successive climate impacts have really created this opportunity to de-silo management of the Mississippi River and push the nation toward managing at watershed scale,” MRCTI’s executive director Colin Wellenkamp said. 

MRCTI plans to reintroduce the SMRT Act in the first half of the year, and this time, they’re also considering other policy avenues, like including it in the Farm Bill. Its biggest goal is establishing a national office for the Mississippi River, which would establish a riverwide restoration plan, among other things.

Until then, Wellenkamp said the restoration program pushes MRCTI’s goals forward by promoting natural infrastructure for disaster resilience and allowing the Corps to partner directly with restoration and advocacy groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, which MRCTI has partnered with for years.

As flooding has become more frequent in the basin, the groups have worked together to restore wetlands, Zach Hartman, Ducks Unlimited’s chief policy officer, said. “By addressing these problems with natural infrastructure solutions … everybody benefits so much more.”

The Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program (UMRR) — the lower basin program’s counterpart upriver — launched in 1986 and is widely regarded as a success story. It was the first environmental restoration and monitoring program undertaken on a large river system in the United States, and the Army Corps called it the “single most important effort” for the vitality of the upper river’s fish and wildlife in the past century.

More than 60 restoration projects have been completed in the region since then, covering some 100,000 acres. Congress authorized $90 million for UMRR in the current WRDA bill — five times its initial allocation.

There’s an additional monitoring and research component of UMRR, which regional program manager Marshall Plumley said was necessary given the lack of existing data when the program started in the late 1980s.

The Mississippi River bend, viewed from Mt. Hosmer City Park in Lansing, Iowa, provides one of several views that local residents say drive tourism to Allamakee County, in Iowa’s northeast corner. (Archive photo) Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

The program has evolved, but Plumley said the inception was similar to the new Lower Mississippi River Basin demonstration program. Interest in a coordinated effort emerged from different entities asking the same questions: How do we balance the needs of commercial navigation, the ecosystem and the communities throughout the basin?

“Looking at the Mississippi River as one system is vitally important,” Plumley said.

UMRR’s first few years were a gradual demonstration of success that secured more time and money for the program, Plumley said. That’s the task advocates in the lower river will soon face as they seek appropriations and develop a framework for the program.

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

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