Mississippi River mayors eye federal funds to fight effects of climate change
A coalition of more than 100 Mississippi River mayors are pushing for more investment in natural infrastructure, ecosystem restoration and disaster resilience. The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI) released its policy platform during their annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, March 1.
The mayors applauded the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). MRCTI co-chairs Errick Simmons and Jim Strickland, the mayors of Greenville, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee, respectively, said the two investment packages bring “the most resources to the Mississippi River Corridor since the New Deal.”
The IRA includes more than $21 billion for climate-friendly agriculture, which could reduce harmful runoff into the river. The infrastructure law invests $17 billion in ports and waterways.
Strickland and Simmons said in a statement that the historic federal investments could fund watershed-scale projects to completion. Brad Cavanagh, the mayor of Dubuque, Iowa, said new spending must also be paired with smart policy.
MRCTI reports that nearly $1 trillion of product travels on the Mississippi River annually, accounting for more than 90% of U.S. agricultural exports, generating half a trillion dollars in revenue and employing an estimated 1.3 million people.
“Our corridor is a national treasure of environmental services vital to our nation’s economic security and critical to commodity production, manufacturing and transportation,” Strickland and Simmons said in their statement.
The mayors are seeking additional funding for eight pieces of legislation and calling for more than $280 million in appropriations for 10 projects, which MRCTI executive director Colin Wellenkamp said demonstrate a basin-scale approach to conservation.
One pillar of the programs is protection of the basin’s natural infrastructure, such as wetlands, which combat severe weather events driven by climate change.
Wetlands provide myriad benefits to communities near the river, including water quality improvement, pollution control, flood protection and recreation. The upper Mississippi River has lost more than 80% of wetlands since the end of the 18th century, making the region more vulnerable to natural disasters.
Protecting the river’s natural infrastructure makes surrounding communities more disaster-resilient, something top of mind for the mayors as climate-induced severe weather events become increasingly common. Wetland depletion has left the region more vulnerable to disasters like flooding and drought, the mayors said.
With the Farm Bill up for renewal in 2023, Wellenkamp said they’re hoping for further investment in climate resilience projects.
In addition to lobbying for funding in the Farm Bill and other funding tranches, the MRCTI is trying to secure money to establish new programs, like a $40 million ecosystem restoration program on the lower river that prioritizes natural infrastructure.
They are also lobbying to increase funding for existing programs. The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative is a 12-state effort aimed at improving water quality, restoring wetlands and enhancing wildlife habitat, while ensuring the economic viability of agricultural lands.
The mayors said Congress should allocate an extra $50 million for that program to keep pace with climate impacts.
They’re also calling on Congress to make some temporary programs mainstays.
The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, introduced a temporary grant program to protect freshwater ecosystems and their watersheds in 2015. Funds ran dry, and now the mayors are asking Congress to make the program a $10 million fixture that encourages multi-state projects.
This is the coalition’s 11th annual policy platform.
“We tend to accomplish a lot of what we pursue,” Wellenkamp said in a statement.
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.