Washington, D.C. — Mayors from 10 states along the Mississippi River gathered in D.C. last week to lobby for funding to protect and restore one of the world’s most important working rivers.

The convening was part of the annual capital meeting of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative (MRCTI), which includes 105 cities. During last week’s meetings, the mayors — embattled by mounting climate concerns such as harder-hitting natural disasters, drought, saltwater intrusion and agricultural runoff — asked Congress to scale up existing investments and bolster policies protecting the river corridor.

Advocates from the Mississippi River Network were also in Washington, D.C., to host meetings with congressional leaders, discussing budgets for 2024 and 2025.

The network consists of nearly 70 local organizations and 20,000 individual members dedicated to creating a healthier basin. Members from across the basin flew to the capital to bring concerns from their communities directly to the decision-makers, said Maisah Khan, policy director of the network. 

The Mississippi River Network presented two policy priorities: increasing federal funding for farmer-led conservation and investing in better water infrastructure. This funding would largely come from the second half of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

So far, these two acts have brought $146 billion in new investment to the Mississippi River Corridor, according to the 2024 Policy Platform for MRCTI. But climate change has already taken a toll on the shipping industry, which moves 589 million tons of cargo each year. 

Over the last two years, intense drought across the basin caused billions in losses along the Mississippi River, said Sarah Kapnick, chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as she spoke to the mayors in the capital. 

The mayors agree that middle America needs an ambitious plan to safeguard the Mississippi River basin, which produces 92% of U.S. agricultural exports.

MRCTI’s 2024 Policy Platform recognizes the importance of ecosystems at the heart of this economic corridor. Its plan incorporates federal funding over the next two years with policy recommendations designed to emphasize resilience, climate mitigation and ecosystem restoration across the basin.

Demand for Farmer-Led Conservation Funding

Reauthorization of the Farm Bill, a package of legislation passed every several years, is a critical part of the policy priorities for both the Mississippi River Network and the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative. The current iteration of the Farm Bill was last passed in 2018.

On Saturday, President Joe Biden signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2024, which includes funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and five other federal departments through Sept. 30. However, the Farm Bill is separate and has been extended through 2024, and could be up for renewal this year.

The Mississippi River Network called on elected officials to protect and increase conservation-program funding in both the Farm Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act. Farmers play a crucial role in conservation, because the fertilizers and pesticides sprayed on their fields eventually run off into the Mississippi River and contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Current conservation-program funding is not meeting the demands of farmers, according to data collected by the Mississippi River Network. There is huge demand for these programs and they are consistently underfunded. These conservation practices would offer a high return on investment for both farmers and downstream Mississippi River communities in the form of mitigating floods, filtering pollutants, and maintaining habitat for recreation and tourism.

“Funding farmers is the issue that everyone is in support of,” said Mark “River” Peoples, an advocate and guide with the Quapaw Canoe Company who traveled to the capital with the Mississippi River Network to speak with elected officials. “But where is that money going to come from?”

Mayors along the Mississippi River are also calling on elected officials to increase funding for current conservation practices. MRCTI urges the House Committee on Agriculture to update its proposed Healthy Farms Healthy Watersheds Act of 2023 to include the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The act would strengthen nutrient runoff management programs, which can reduce pollutants that contribute to the dead zone. 

The mayors of MRCTI also encouraged Congress to increase funding for the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, which uses Farm Bill money for agricultural conservation programs, by $50 million. According to MRCTI, since 2005, the corridor spanning the 10 mainstem basin states has sustained over $246 billion in losses from droughts, floods, extreme heat and named storms. 

Billion-dollar climate disasters are becoming increasingly common. In 2023 alone, the U.S. experienced 28 weather disasters where losses exceeded $1 billion. Mayors along the Mississippi River have seen the effects of these climate disasters steadily increase. 

As droughts increase and last for longer periods, the mayors of MRCTI urge Congress to address gaps in drought policy and resilience.

Water Infrastructure to Ease Chronic Drought

“Five hundred and fifty-three days of low water had incredible economic implications on this nation,” said Edward Belk, director of civil works for the Army Corps of Engineers. 

Southern Louisiana’s historic drought also caused a second year of saltwater intrusion, threatening drinking water. As salt water from the Gulf of Mexico crept up the Mississippi River, the Army Corps barged 153 million gallons of water to communities that had lost access to clean drinking water, Belk said.

“Every night, the news presented the saltwater intrusion like it was Godzilla moving slowly up the river to devour us all,” said Tim Baudier, mayor of the city of Harahan.

Baudier said that in Harahan, located nine miles upriver from New Orleans, they filled city hall with so many cases of drinking water that it was hard to maneuver around the space.

Belinda Constant, the mayor of nearby Gretna, asked Belk and other engineers how to best prepare for future saltwater intrusion. She joined other mayors of MRCTI to ask for an additional $40 million to be designated for ecosystem restoration in the lower basin

The mayors also asked that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency invest $5 billion to find a permanent solution for saltwater intrusion in southern Louisiana. MRCTI said the funding could begin to cover the cost of converting municipal water-treatment plants to handle desalination as well as examine and implement the best option to ensure New Orleans has permanent access to fresh water.

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, with major funding from the Walton Family Foundation. MRCTI and the Mississippi River Network also receive Walton funding. Sign up to republish stories like this one for free