Nearly 30 percent of Americans live in the Mississippi River Basin. Water from 31 states and two Canadian provinces ultimately makes its way into the Mississippi. Because of its size and reach, from shipping and agriculture to commercial fishing and tourism, calculating the economic impact of the Mississippi River Basin is almost impossible.
Yet the river that in many ways is America’s central nervous system is in serious trouble. Rain falling on farmlands and pastures picks up chemical fertilizers as it flows into the Mississippi and its tributaries. Deforestation and poorly planned development sends sediment and pollutants from urban centers into the water. Climate change is altering water temperature and seasonal patterns of flooding and low water, which is in turn erratically increasing demand for water for irrigation and municipal use. And don’t forget about dredging, channeling and dams to produce power and control water levels.
Further deterioration of the Mississippi River would be an ecological tragedy, pose overwhelming risk to human health and economies, and present a threat to US national security. The food produced here, the economic impact of commercial transportation, the water that supplies homes and businesses, the surrounding lands that clean our air and water—the system is, to borrow a phrase from the financial world, “too big to fail.”
So what can turn the Mississippi’s trajectory around and secure the basin’s resilient, sustainable future? What could be the bold, big-idea, try-it-and-see, quantum leap approach that gathers science, policy, and the private and civil sectors and incentivizes them to pull together toward finding rapid solutions and implementing them ASAP?
A national lab.
Why a National Lab Approach?
This isn’t the first time our country has responded to seemingly insurmountable challenges with national labs. Beginning with the Manhattan Project that led to the creation of the atom bomb in the 20th century, the federal government developed a network of dozens of laboratories to foster innovation and collaboration to identify solutions to address energy development and national security.
Surely the Mississippi River Basin demands that level of attention—a national lab to tackle sustainability for a system that is crucial to national security in the 21st century. Because national security is increasingly about much more than bombs and boots on the ground. Without a big, fast and coordinated effort to make the river function for today and tomorrow, food supplies are vulnerable, disruptions in energy resources are imminent, and our ability to nimbly respond to disasters is compromised.
A national lab would lead and coordinate efforts to redesign the function, the management and the future of this globally significant water system. For example, a national lab could help make progress to ultimately end the “dead zone” that has plagued the Gulf of Mexico for years. Nitrogen and phosphorus used to fertilize crops and lawns across the massive basin are washed into streams and rivers. As the nutrient-loaded water makes its way to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it feeds algae, the decay of which in turn, uses up the oxygen in the water. Valuable commercial fish species die off in staggering numbers; NOAA estimates the loss to the fishing industry and tourism is around $82 million a year.
Pull that problem apart. How do we find solutions for something that begins with decisions made far away, is affected by unpredictable variables like climate change, that crosses scores of jurisdictions, and is connected to local, national and global economies?
A national lab for the Mississippi River Basin would do just that: break problems down and try out ways to affect change on multiple scales. It would be a partnership between government, academia and industry sectors, and operated and governed by a multi-state commission representing the 31 states contributing runoff to the river. In addition, a national lab would:
- Help us move from a piecemeal approach toward tight coordination between a large community of scholarship and a community of practice which would guide the creation, translation and implementation of science that considers local needs and challenges in the context of the entire system.
- Have sustainable funding that isn’t dependent on the whims of foundation funders or siloed corporate interests. It could instead be funded by increased federal investment in the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA (among others) in similar fashion to other national labs.
- Enable the development of science that considers local needs and challenges in the context of the entire system.
- Be nimble—able to direct time and resources to emerging ideas and shifting realities to develop, test and apply learnings in real-time. In the context of climate change, maximum flexibility of response and testing is particularly important.
We Need a Single Coordinating Entity to Move Us Boldly Toward Solutions
I’m not the first or the only person to suggest the idea of something akin to a new national lab to attack the enormous challenges we are confronting today. In 2016 under President Barack Obama, the White House hosted a Water Summit, which resulted in a number of big ideas and commitments to bring more holistic thinking to water management across the country. Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, has called for a national sustainability lab.
But I believe a national lab focused on the Mississippi River is a critical construct. Right now, no one entity can make bold moves toward solutions for the river — because no one has the jurisdiction to make broad, forward-thinking change to the order of magnitude and with the speed required.
Don’t get me wrong — there are many important efforts to study, conserve, restore and manage the Mississippi River Basin. In fact, if you tried to map the reach of and relationships between the of federal and state agencies, municipal interests, nonprofit and academic organizations, community groups, tribal nations, corporate and business entities, and the coalitions and consortiums of all of those groups that work in and around the Mississippi River, the result would be an enormous, incomprehensible tangle.
Despite generally positive intentions, so much interest has had unintended consequences. Meaningful, lasting change has not happened for the Gulf dead zone because priorities for those changes are defined at multiple scales. Crucial data are collected by myriad federal and state agencies without coordination. We need a federalized approach that leverages data science to integrate these various datasets into useful information at the basin level. That federalized approach could also help coordinate the overlapping and contradictory policies that can now slow progress and fuel inaction.
We are running out of time to shrug our shoulders and pass the buck. The consequences of our ambivalence and avoidance cannot be overstated. Let’s bring the resolve of the American spirit – and the coordinated power of science, policy and business – together to define a healthy, abundant and sustainable future for the Mississippi River.