Management of Mississippi River still a question for Tulane, New Orleans 10 years after Hurricane Katrina

Kate Jamison, Online News Editor

Managing the Mississippi River and its watershed is of special interest to New Orleans and Tulane, as demonstrated by past floods. Mark Davis, a senior research fellow at Tulane Law School and director of Tulane’s Institute for Water Resources Law and Policy, said Tulane University has a “special interest in seeing this place make it.”

Davis is a member of the advisory board to America’s Watershed Initiative, a collaboration that aims to find solutions to better manage the Mississippi River watershed by working with business, government, academic and civic organizations.

This weekend, the Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association held its annual meeting in downtown New Orleans. There, representatives from America’s Watershed Initiative presented their report card on the management of the Mississippi River watershed, a three-year-long collaborative effort that aimed to “provide decision-makers, watershed leaders, and the public with easy-to-understand information about the state of the watershed’s health to aid them in developing a collaborative approach to managing America’s Watershed.” The Report Card was published in October 2015.

The report card assessed six goals for the watershed. The overall grade the watershed received was a D+. America’s Watershed Initiative plans to use the report card as a tool to “raise the grade,” AWI Director Harald “Jordy” Jordahl said.

The Mississippi River watershed is the fourth largest watershed in the world. It encompasses all or part of 31 states (and two Canadian provinces) earning it the name “America’s Watershed.” The watershed provides drinking water for millions of people and the water is used to produce more than half of America’s goods and services.

Steve Mathies, a New Orleanian with more than 30 years of experience in hurricane protection and ecosystem restoration, is a member of the steering committee for America’s Watershed Initiative. He said investing in the watershed is an investment in America’s economy.

“If you add the Mississippi River and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, that’s more miles of navigable water than the rest of the world put together,” Mathies said. “That’s what drove the national economy then and now. People don’t realize that waterborne commerce is 10 to 30 times cheaper than rail or putting things on the road. So if you can produce a crop, put it on barges, bring it to New Orleans and send it offshore, the total cost is less. That’s why we can beat the price of everyone else in the world.  When you look at it it makes me scratch my head and wonder why we didn’t start managing this system as a system 100 years ago.”

Managing the system means bridging the boundaries between all river interests, including agriculture, government, navigation, transportation and recreation interests. Davis said those interests have long operated separately in their control of the river and the watershed.

“We have broken the river into so many pieces that it has been referred to as an orphan,” Davis said. “It’s an orphan with multiple personalities and parents with multiple personalities.  I think that it has become impossible to really become its steward unless we make it our business to do that.”

Jordahl has been leading the effort to meet with over 400 entities with an interest in the watershed and hosting dozens of workshops to combine and collaborate on those interests.

The conversation at Tulane has been focused on looking at how law and policy affects the management of the river, Davis said. Tulane’s Institute for Water Resources Law and Policy at the law school focuses on coastal change in New Orleans and the surrounding areas, examining how law and policy shapes the application of science, engineering and resource management to meet society’s (and the ecosystem’s) needs.

Jordahl said though coastal Louisiana is just miles from the mouth of the Mississippi, there are activists around the country addressing river management issues.

“This conversation is not just a New Orleans conversation; this conversation is happening throughout the watershed,” Jordahl said. “We need to figure out how to work together. The report is a tool to identify where there can be a more shared vision and to identify opportunities for collaborative action.”

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