The Memphis skyline is seen along the Mississippi River. (Lance Murphey /The Daily Memphian)
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This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Wisconsin Watch is a member of the network. Sign up for our newsletter and donate to support our fact-checked journalism.

A coalition of Mississippi River mayors is celebrating the Senate approval of a lower river basin plan. At their annual meeting in St. Louis during the week of Sept. 15, members of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI) discussed policy priorities and strategized ways to benefit the region.

The group has been pushing for a slate of legislation called the Safeguarding the Mississippi River Together (SMRT) Act, which Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) introduced in July 2021. It aims to protect the economic and ecological health of the river system.

It would develop a unified river management plan, including a national program office, for a region that has largely been a patchwork of federal and local programs.

Now, Senator John Boozman (R-AR), Republican leader of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is folding some of those priorities into the national Water Resources Development Act, biennial legislation that authorizes water resource programs from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The committee approved the amendment to develop “a comprehensive Lower Mississippi River Basin plan” Section 406 of WRDA, in July.

“It speaks volumes to have widespread support in both chambers for making these necessary updates,” Boozman said. 

WRDA will further the mayors’ goals by establishing a lower Mississippi River basin demonstration program. The program would provide flood protection by supporting projects like sediment control, channel modifications and erosion protection. Projects, which cannot exceed $15 million, are eligible for a 75% federal cost share.

Boozman likened the effort to programs in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay, which allow communities and private entities to apply for federal assistance to aid conservation efforts.  

The 1986 WRDA established the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program. It was the first environmental restoration and monitoring program on a large river system in the country, but this year’s WRDA will establish the first program of its kind for the lower river.

MRCTI co-chair, Mayor Errick Simmons, of Greenville, Mississippi, commended congressional leadership for making the Mississippi River corridor a national priority. 

“Simply put, the Mississippi River corridor is America’s original Main Street — and it should be treated as such,” Simmons said. 

MRCTI executive director Colin Wellenkamp said this project is just one piece of the SMRT Act’s aspiration for big-picture policy changes. If Biden signs it, Wellenkamp said MRCTI will redraft the SMRT Act before reintroducing it to Congress in January.

“No matter what your political views are, if we come together, we can preserve and improve this incredible asset we have: the Mississippi River,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said.

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

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