A new bid to safeguard Mississippi River amid growing environmental concerns

By Madeline Heim, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A proposal to create a federal funding program to protect the Mississippi River is back in front of Congress.

Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin announced Wednesday that she plans to introduce the Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative in the Senate. Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota will bring the same bill forward in the House.

The proposal is nearly the same as one introduced by McCollum in 2021. It’s modeled after programs that protect other major bodies of waters across the U.S., like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Advocates for the Mississippi River argue that the river is long overdue to have its own such program. Millions of Americans rely on it for drinking water, commerce and recreation, and its floodplains provide food and habitat for hundreds of fish and wildlife species. But it’s facing a multitude of challenges, from extreme weather to habitat loss to persistent agricultural and industrial pollution. That pollution contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which last year was almost as big as Yellowstone Park.

Even in the past few years, the river has experienced the impacts of a changing climate, said Kelly McGinnis, executive director of the Mississippi River Network. Last spring, communities along the upper river saw near-record floodwaters, bookended by severe droughts that slowed shipping traffic to a crawl.

“If anything, since (this legislation) was first introduced, the conditions of the world we live in just keep showing us that there is an urgent need to address these problems, and they’re not solving themselves,” McGinnis said.