Mark Twain once said, “The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.” His words have endured through more than a century of storms and floods. The river “cannot be tamed, curbed or confined,” he quipped — and in the age of climate change, doubly so.
Facing increasingly severe storms and more frequent and intense floods, mayors up and down the Big Muddy are working to protect their cities from climate change. At the same time, many believe the river can play a key role in cutting carbon pollution.
“When things happen to you personally, it then becomes a personal issue for you,” said Lionel Johnson, mayor of St. Gabriel, Louisiana and co-chair of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI), a coalition of more than 80 mayors representing cities along the the Mississippi River. “As mayors, we don’t deal with partisanship. We don’t deal with Republican, Democrat, Independent. We deal with the people. We are where the rubber hits the road.”
Johnson noted that the region is seeing more intense rainfall, leading to rampant flooding. Since 2011, the Mississippi River corridor has seen a 100-year flood, a 200-year flood and a 500-year flood. Altogether, natural disasters have racked up some $50 billion in damages over that time, according to MRCTI.
Paradoxically, climate change is fueling both floods and drought. Because warmer air holds more moisture, it takes longer for the atmosphere to become saturated with water, the point at which it begins to rain. But, when it does rain, many cities along the Mississippi River are likely to see heavier downpours.
“Not only are we having the flood-related challenges that many of us are facing, but also drought,” said Frank Klipsch mayor of Davenport, Iowa and co-chair of MRCTI. Iowa is enduring a brutal dry spell that has taken a toll on farmers, even as heavy rainfall inundates riverside cities.
Despite this fact, many people continue to downplay the threat of climate change. A 2015 study found that the Army Corps of Engineers is underestimating future flooding along the Mississippi River by failing to take into account changes in rainfall, among other factors. Authors say that flood levels are increasing across major rivers in the Midwest, threatening commerce in the region.
“Seventy percent of corn, soybeans and wheat that is produced in the United States travels on the Mississippi River on the barge system,” Klipsch said. “We’re the bread basket of the United States.” Flooding, he added, “affects everything up and down the Mississippi.”
In an effort to keep floodwaters at bay, MRCTI put forward an $8 billion infrastructure plan that would restore floodplains and repair the system of locks and dams used to manage water levels, among other measures. In march, a coalition of Mississippi River mayors went to Capitol Hill to press members of Congress and the White House to pass the plan, which they say will create more than 100,000 new jobs.
“This isn’t just looking for a handout. This is actually us participating as cities and states with the federal government and barge industry, all wanting to put money in to do that infrastructure plan,” Klipsch said. “The lock and dam system along the Mississippi River is extremely important to commerce.”
Mayors are also pushing for measures to conserve natural areas and protect drinking water. “We have a lot of constituents concerned about climate in general, particularly drainage and clean water and clean air,” Johnson said. “For me and my constituents, it’s not a debate. We know it’s real.”
This week, Klipsch and Johnson are in Bonn, Germany for the 2017 UN Climate Change Conference, as part of a bipartisan effort among state and local governments, businesses and universities to fulfill U.S. commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. President Trump announced in June that the United States will be exiting the landmark accord.
“I’m extremely grateful to have this opportunity to be here. I am here because I see it. I’m living it — the flooding, the drought, the sustained rains, the hurricanes back to back to back to back,” Johnson said. “The fact of the matter is, if we do nothing, it’s just going to get worse.”
As part of their work to cut carbon pollution, Mississippi River mayors hope to shore up shipping along America’s largest waterway. Shipping goods by barge along the river generates less carbon pollution than shipping goods by truck or even rail. Mayors hope to bolster riparian transport. “We’re actually looking at some ports along the Mississippi River, development of those,” Klipsch said.
Many local leaders find themselves at odds with their governors, to say nothing of the federal government, which has slashed climate protections under Trump. “We think it’s important that the United States and all of us need to be at the table to be part of that discussion,” Klipsch said. “We’re focused on that, doing our part.”
Twain would approve. “Do the right thing,” he once said. “It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
Nexus Media is a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art and culture. Owen Agnew, Jeremy Deaton and Josh Landis contributed to this report.