Michael Reuter is The Nature Conservancy’s senior director of central U.S. conservation strategies and the director of the Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership.

Longing to see redbud trees in full bloom and experience the blues in the land of Muddy Waters, my family and I departed Peoria over spring break a few years ago to drive Route 61 — the “Blues Highway” — from Memphis to New Orleans. Not much compares in my mind to the raw, gritty, soulful blues you can find at a juke joint in rural Mississippi.

My real agenda, however, was simply to expose my children to the sights and sounds — as well as the fears, dreams and ambitions — that rise out of the Mississippi River Delta. This broad floodplain — up to 100 miles wide in some places — has been one of the most influential settings in the development of American culture and history. Blues and jazz fans worldwide know this.

What is less well known, however, is that this region remains an epicenter in the struggle to find balance between culture, economy and ecology within the great Mississippi River Valley.  (Learn more about the people who depend on the Mississippi for their livelihoods with this great Conservancy web feature.)

For instance, this nation still remains deeply engaged in a flood-fighting effort that began in 1927 — in response to a massive torrent that claimed hundreds of lives and devastated property throughout the Lower Mississippi River Valley. Congress gave the Corps of Engineers that following year a new mandate — called the Mississippi River and Tributaries Act — to protect the people of this region from the recurrence of any such event.

Because of an intergenerational commitment to this goal, more than $12 billion in public funds have been appropriated to carry out this flood control mission. At least 1,600 miles of levees along the shorelines of the Lower Mississippi River and 600 miles of levees along major tributaries today are a direct result.

But just as blues led to jazz, then rock and roll and now rap, I tell my children that our journey to sustain people and nature along the Mississippi River has to evolve, too. A growing number of river managers and stakeholders now recognize that many times our efforts to improve the river created new problems.

For instance, early planners and engineers couldn’t have fully understood how a flood control agenda might change the way sediment moves through the Mississippi and, in turn, degrades the health of coastal wetlands that protect Louisianans from hurricanes and provide habitat for hundreds of different species of wildlife.

In music as well as river management, some isolation is beneficial. Distinctive blues music would not likely have emerged from spiritual and work songs in the Delta had those people not been isolated from the traditional music played in the cities (however trying the conditions that necessitated this isolation). But had there been no connection at all, the blues would not have become a part of our collective history and culture either.

Likewise, many floodplain areas along the river must be protected from floods, while other areas must stay connected for the health of the river system.

This requires all of us to begin thinking much more systemically — something easier said than done. Recently, The Nature Conservancy, the Army Corps of Engineers and other important stakeholders began to talk more earnestly about how to engage key parties in a process of managing the Mississippi River more as a system, from its headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico.

Our goal is to build a more inclusive type of partnership — one that is strengthened by differences as much as similarities, so that we can anticipate unexpected events. Indeed, our future challenges may include:

  • Increased competition among communities and industries for freshwater resources,
  • A paradoxical increase in floods and droughts possibly exacerbated by climate change, and
  • A continued decline in the health of our native plant and animal species.

Our response to the future will no doubt involve the intensification of agriculture, navigation or flood control in certain areas to meet the demands of a growing population. But we must also become more strategic in the design and more effective in the placement of our conservation projects in order to attain the balance and resilience that is inherent in a more sustainable river.

Developing real trust and partnership and an intergenerational commitment at this scale is challenging but not unprecedented. Many of our nation’s great civil works projects have required it, and the Mississippi River demands it from us again.

But that does not overwhelm me. It’s natural for my children and others to think that someone who works for The Nature Conservancy works on the Mississippi River because of the fish and wildlife. In fact, what they learned on the Delta is that it is the people that interest me most.

(Image: The paddles on the rear of the vessel pushing the excursion paddle-boat “Spirit of Dubuque” up the Mississippi River near Dubuque, Iowa. Image credit: Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy.)

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