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McClatchy-Tribune  07/04/2014 9:23 AM ET
Mississippi River faces climate change, funding challenges [St. Louis Post-Dispatch :: ]

July 04--Colin Wellenkamp recently returned to St. Louis after spending 10 years in Washington working on issues that include transportation, waterways, sustainability and economic development.

His return was made possible when the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative decided earlier this year to move its headquarters out of Washington to be closer to the river. St. Louis offered to host the operation, giving it rent-free space in the Market Street offices of the St. Louis Economic Development Corp. Wellenkamp, a former St. Ann resident and a graduate of St. Louis University, is director of the Initiative, which works on behalf of 10 states and 124 member communities touching the river. The organization is about to add a second employee.

The Post-Dispatch recently interviewed Wellenkamp about the Initiative and the economic and ecological issues facing the Mississippi River and the communities it touches. Below is an edited transcript.

How would you describe the mission of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative?

The mantra of the organization is "an ecologically healthy river is an economically robust river." The mission is to improve the Mississippi River's ecological condition and thereby create a better environment for the economy to flourish. If you have a waterway that is healthy, that attracts recreational dollars. Nobody wants to fish, boat or swim in dirty water.

If it's a healthy river, there's more water in the system, which is good for navigation. You don't have to worry so much about dredging. Sedimentation and erosion are reduced because trees and wetlands filter and capture that. These are all things that are great for business. Agriculture, too, benefits from a healthy watershed. An ecologically health river makes not only the flowers bloom, but the economy also.

You recently moved your office from Washington to St. Louis. Does that offer any advantages or challenges?

Since the effort started 29 months ago, the plan was always to have the effort headquartered in the region somewhere. That's so that the work could be close to the resource. Being in D.C. was great because you're at the policy center of everything. But we missed a lot by not being out here. We couldn't go to a lot of the regional meetings, and a lot of the regional conversations unless they were electronic, which most of them weren't.

The Initiative represents the 10 states along the Mississippi River. How do you balance the needs and wishes of the various towns and cities along the river?

That is a challenge, but it is a labor of love that the mayors are very good at. I simply facilitate their conversations and debates. When you have these mayors in a room, you'll have the mayor of Osceola, Ark., sitting next to the mayor of St. Cloud, Minn.; you realize very quickly they have the same challenges. They have the same concerns. And of course, politics is local and they all have their own parochial issues they have to navigate. But they are able to do that much better as a team. You've got concerns that aren't as popular on the southern stem, that are different than the northern stem.

What are the most significant issues facing the communities on the river?

The climate disruption is a significant issue. The drought cost the country $35 billion in actual losses in 2012. It was the second most costly natural disaster on Earth for that year. Hurricane Sandy was the most costly. You had some areas experience a 500-year flood event in 2011. A 200-year flood event in other parts of the river. And then you had Hurricane Isaac. It was one hit after another.

The other major challenge they are facing is that the infrastructure on the waterway is sorely underfunded. Forty percent of agricultural goods produced in this country go up and down that waterway. Without the infrastructure to facilitate that, the economy goes away.

Many of these communities are interested in seeing an increase in container-on-barge shipping. What obstacles must be overcome for that to happen?

The significant item is: How do you make the economy work? You've got to make money going up the river. You've got to make money going down the river. Who's going to be making that money? Who's going to be putting stuff on barges? How are you going to create a competitive advantage in a world with very by-the-minute logistics operations? It's for stuff that has what they call "low-inventory penalties." For items that are heavy and moved in bulk and it doesn't really matter when it gets there. It matters that you get it there by a certain window. And you get a lot of it there.

It existed on the river once -- from 2006 to 2009 with a line up and down from Memphis to New Orleans. You had lumber coming in to New Orleans, going on boats and coming up the Mississippi River and offloading in Memphis. Then you had cotton going on the boat and going down. The foreclosure crisis pretty much nixed the lumber part. No one was building houses any more, so you didn't need all the lumber coming in. That didn't make the line economical any more.

If it happened once, it can happen again. The mayors have been working hard to bring the players together. We've been building a good working group with Wal-Mart and Home Depot. Those are the two largest container importers in the country. It's moving in the right direction. Challenges remain. This isn't going to happen overnight. But at least we've got the parties that can make it happen.

Tim Barker is the biotechnology and agriculture reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @tbarker13

 

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