The Mississippi is America's great river. For more than 2,300 miles, the river connects our nation from its northern Minnesota headwaters, through the heartland and the Delta, to the Gulf of Mexico. Mississippi means "big river" in Ojibwe, and it is a vital artery that flows through the nation, shaping our history, culture and economy. But this aquatic highway for commerce and its abundant, complex ecosystem have been neglected for far too long — and its health is at risk.
Pollution, runoff, flooding and other extreme weather events threaten the health of the river and the communities that depend on it for daily living. For 20 million Americans, including many of us here in the Twin Cities, the Mississippi River is the source of our drinking water. For others, it's also the source of income — a working river that generates a $500-billion-a-year commercial, recreational and natural resources economy employing 1.5 million people. This beautiful river is also part of a global super-flyway for millions of migratory birds and a source of habitat for endangered species. Public health, local economies and a healthy ecosystem all depend on a commitment to protecting the mighty Mississippi.
In a 21st century threatened by climate change, access to an abundance of clean water will be an economic and national security asset. Protecting our clean water is critical, because the risk of scarcity will vastly increase the value of clean water. Water is being traded as a commodity, so protecting and enhancing water quality in the "big river" will be essential to future generations of Americans, from Minnesota to Louisiana.
Our nation has some effective models of federal efforts to coordinate and support the restoration and protection of valuable natural resources that millions of Americans benefit from and care about. Here in the Midwest, a good example is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). This popular initiative, with support from communities and elected officials on both sides of the aisle in Great Lakes states, provides federal investments that help restore and protect the lakes' health so they can continue to provide broad economic and recreational benefits.
Successful regional programs in places like Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades are also demonstrating positive outcomes. Now is the time for Congress to make the same commitment to the Mississippi River.
After months of work with stakeholders in the river states, we are announcing that legislation to establish the Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative, or MRRRI, will soon be introduced in the U.S. House.
Just like the federal collaboration through the GLRI for the Great Lakes, the MRRRI takes a nonregulatory approach and will open up grant opportunities for state and local governments, tribes, and nonprofit organizations up and down the river. The MRRRI will provide critical funding, research and coordination to improve water quality, protect species habitat, enhance flood resilience and combat aquatic invasive species.
This provides key opportunities for locally driven projects to be supported with federal investments. The Environmental Protection Agency, working with other relevant federal agencies, will coordinate existing federal programs and ensure partners are working toward the same goals. Importantly, the program will include a provision prioritizing investments for communities of color and economically disadvantaged urban and rural communities that have been historically at risk and less able to access the benefits of the Mississippi River.
Though the river touches 10 very different states, we are connected by this one extraordinary treasure — and in these challenging times, we know this is something tangible we can do that will positively affect us all. Organizations from every river-connected state have endorsed the MRRRI, and support is growing every day in Congress and across the region.
Congress has already approved language in this year's omnibus funding bill to establish a national strategy for the MRRRI — and this new legislation will formally authorize the EPA to get started.
The Mighty Mississippi means so much to so many of us. It's time for us to give back, and work together to restore America's river.
Betty McCollum represents Minnesota's Fourth District in the U.S. House. Whitney Clark is executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River, based in St. Paul.