The Mighty Mississippi
See how this great river satisfies America’s thirst for fresh water.
Great Rivers News recently spoke with Michael Reuter about the Water Footprint report and its implications for the Great Rivers Partnership’s work. Reuter is director of The Nature Conservancy’s North America Freshwater Program and executive director of the Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership.
According to the recently released Water Footprint report, more than half of the water that people in the U.S. ‘consume’ comes from the Mississippi River basin, and the total figure is double the amount of the next nine rivers combined. What implications does that have for the Great Rivers Partnership’s (GRP) work in the basin?
This report confirms that the Mississippi River basin is one of the most important ‘bread-baskets’ in the world. Its abundant water – and good soils – not only feed people in the United States, they help feed the world.
But water is a complicated issue in the Mississippi. Too much water in the central and eastern portions of the upper basin brings along a flush of nutrients from agricultural and urban settings, contributing to an expanding dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The western portion of the basin has much less annual rainfall, and irrigation is affecting surface and groundwater supplies. Ironically, the lower basin gets the most rain, as much as 50 inches a year, but it comes at the wrong time, so the need to irrigate is depleting groundwater in the Delta region as well.
The GRP is reaching out basin-wide to multiple stakeholders to develop a vision and approach for the sustainable use and management of the river and its life-giving water.
The report says that, globally, agricultural production contributes 92% to the total water footprint. How is the GRP working with agriculture in great river basins around the world?
We know the world faces a major challenge – how to feed and provide fuel for increasing numbers of people in a way that is environmentally sustainable. The GRP is working directly with farmers and major agricultural and transportation companies to develop solutions to this challenge.
In the United States, we are part of Field to Market (FTM), an alliance of corporations and nonprofits working to define and encourage agricultural sustainability for major commodity crops including corn, soy, wheat and cotton. FTM has developed a fieldprint calculator, which takes the water footprint approach to the individual farm and field level to help farmers manage productivity and profitability while having the smallest environmental footprint. This fall we will explore the potential to expand this tool for use in the Amazon basin.
We’re also working with farmers in several states to help minimize water quality impacts from farm operations. We’re looking at how small, created wetlands can filter water, how the use of woodchips and other ‘bio-filters’ can improve water that drains from fields and how the restoration of key floodplain and riverfront areas can reduce erosion and improve water quality.
Internationally, the GRP has supported efforts to harmonize agricultural production in Brazil’s Cerrado region with national and state laws that require protection of forestland. By targeting forest conservation in the right areas, we can have a positive impact on water quality and river health.
What strategies is the GRP pursuing to restore the health of the Mississippi River basin?
In addition to our work with agriculture, we are focused on three primary strategies. First, we are working to build a shared vision and more collaborative approach for the sustainable management of the Mississippi River basin with federal and state government as well as the private sector including navigation, agriculture and flood control interests that depend on the river’s resources. Because of the size of the Mississippi River, like other large rivers around the world, it lacks a comprehensive vision and tends to be managed in a highly fragmented way. Together we hope to use that vision and support to better target public and private funding, improve policies and strengthen the way different sectors and entities work together to address the challenges – like flooding and hypoxia – that occur at the system level.
Second, we are focused on improving some of the key government programs that affect the way the river is managed. Specifically, we are working to ensure that agricultural conservation programs available to farmers are directed to places where they can have the biggest return on investment. We also work closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as they operate the large flood control and navigation systems throughout the river and undertake some of the biggest environmental restoration projects to improve its health. We want to ensure that the environmental aspects of these projects are considered alongside the economic and social aspects in a more integrated way.
Third, we are undertaking large-scale demonstration projects where questions related to tributary and floodplain function and health can be answered with conservation and restoration strategies developed. These projects are focused on learning from our actions. For example, we have undertaken three large floodplain restoration projects where we have either completely reconnected the floodplains to the adjacent flowing river or allowed the natural seepage to revitalize the aquatic area behind a managed levee. These areas provide tremendous benefits to wildlife and serve as important areas for the natural reduction of nutrients and sediments in the rivers’ waters. Strong monitoring programs enable these projects to inform similar efforts in the basin and around the world.
According to the report, about 20% of the water footprint of U.S. citizens lies outside the U.S. with the largest footprint being in the Yangtze River basin. Are there implications here for GRP’s work?
The GRP has been active in the Yangtze River basin for many years, starting with providing financial and technical support to Conservancy colleagues in China to assess the biological diversity of the upper Yangtze River basin, which is home to 400 million people. Modeled after the Conservancy's 2003 assessment of the Upper Mississippi River, this assessment eventually paved the way for China's national conservation blueprint.
We’ve continued building relationships between U.S. and Chinese agencies working on the Mississippi and Yangtze rivers so that knowledge gained working in one system can be shared with the other. An example is the system the GRP and U.S. Geological Survey are helping Chinese colleagues develop to assess and monitor fish populations in the Yangtze River. The information gathered will increase understanding of the biology, abundance and distribution of fishes in the Yangtze and, ultimately, help river managers make decisions that improve river health and habitat for fish and other aquatic species.
The U.S. also utilizes water from the Magdalena River watershed in Colombia. In what ways is GRP active in that river basin?
While it occupies a much smaller basin, the Magdalena is still a great river which has many similarities to the Mississippi River. Last winter, water in the Magdalena reached the highest level seen in the last 109 years (since data has been recorded). The river broke through levees, causing severe damage to infrastructure, housing, agriculture and ranching activities – impacts we can relate to in our own country with the lower Mississippi and Missouri rivers also reaching historic flood levels this past spring and summer. Like the U.S., Colombia has strong government agencies responsible for addressing these issues. We’ve helped facilitate meetings and technical exchanges between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the technical staff and leadership of agencies in Colombia to help them learn from each other. The Magdalena is less developed than the Mississippi, so we have a chance to help create a sustainable, basin-wide approach to river management that employs some of our successes and lessons learned.
Concerns about water use and scarcity seem odd when rivers like the Mississippi, Yangtze and Magdalena just experienced such massive flooding this spring. Any thoughts on how we reconcile these two seemingly disparate concepts?
Floods come and go and, thus, are not a good measure of water ‘richness’ over time. They are, however, extremely damaging, hampering production and threatening lives and property at higher cost than perhaps any other environmental impact.
Water scarcity is a very real problem that threatens all parts of the world, even areas that are relatively water rich like the Mississippi River basin. That is because water must be available at the right times and in the right places – whether you are a person seeking a drink or a fish seeking a place to swim and feed. Local and regional scarcity will increase the demands to produce goods and products from areas where there is water which will, in turn, increase environmental pressure on those resources.
Along with the global issue of water scarcity, floods do heighten our sense of urgency to develop ways to collectively manage large river systems around the world to meet the needs of people and sustain the environment.