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A National Dialogue for the Future of America's Waterway

River Currents Newsletter - July 2008

Between the Iowa caucuses and record flood stages, the mid-section of the country hasn't had this much attention since Mark Twain scoured its river banks. Maybe that's a clue to why the Mississippi lacks a unified identity.

Coincidentally, as the flood waters rise and recede, I'm reading Mary Morris's The River Queen. It's a chronicle of her long-awaited return to her father's homeland, and as she travels the River, I'm introduced to one abandoned city after another. This could just be the author's - a New Yorker - perspective, but with each city she encounters, she ticks off its closed factory or long-closed industry until you feel that the River is really alive only in people's memories. It's a metaphor for the image most of the nation has for that region of the country.

It occurs to me that this image of the Mississippi's declining population base and disassociated communities plays a role in why the levees have grown weak and economic recovery is slow. In this country it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and the Mississippi River's wheel has been close to silent for well over a generation.

But appearances deceive and perceptions may be a reflection of the beholder's frame of reference. Not that populations haven't declined and industries haven't closed, but the middle part of the country does have vibrant economies that deserve support and infrastructure. Its wetlands and natural resources are paramount to the whole country, as well. But under the "squeaky wheel" approach to public policy, resource protection and community development have been almost nonexistent, especially in the wake of a declining population.

With the spotlight on recent disasters and the potential of a president who got his first break in Iowa, it may be time to claim some of the grease Mississippi River communities justly deserve. The rolling flood crests strongly suggest it can't be one community at a time, either. It's time for a unified approach to infrastructure and in some cases community rebuilding. After the flood waters recede and while the Mississippi mud is still plastered high on the sides of buildings, Mississippi River communities should find ways to work together to make a common case for their share of the pie. They'll need to move quickly though, since the collective memory of Washington is short and the next disaster is probably just around the proverbial "river's bend".

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