COMMENTARY: The Mississippi River – lifeblood of our local and multi-state corridor
The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI) represents all the mayors along the Mississippi River in the 10-state corridor from Minnesota to Louisiana.
Mayors of the Mississippi River Corridor are forging a common vision for 2,500 miles of waterway that generates $500 billion in annual revenue, directly supporting 1.5 million jobs. On the Mississippi River main stem, the river’s ecology provides 80 billion gallons of fresh water withdraws to industries each day, as well as drinking water to 20 million people in 50 cities.
But our tremendous water resource has an equally tremendous problem -- like so many water bodies, it is plagued by plastic pollution collecting and draining from a vast 31-state basin area that spans from Pennsylvania to Idaho.
Up to 80 percent of the plastic in our oceans comes from land-based sources and since the Mississippi River drains such an expansive landscape, it becomes clear how as much as possibly 40 percent of plastic pollution in the Gulf originates from the Mississippi River.
Plastics are what we refer to as a persistent pollutant. Plastics don’t break down, they simply become smaller and eventually turn into a dangerous confetti that absorbs toxins and accumulates in the food chain eventually harming all of us through the food we eat and the water we drink.
An added complication to the problem is plastic’s economic footprint. From Minnesota to Louisiana, plastic manufacturing is prevalent in the Mississippi River Valley. Part of the challenge is transforming the plastics industry toward a more sustainable design that keeps our economy whole.
The security of our fresh water resource is paramount to all economies working on the Mississippi River. Urban parks, streams, and creeks, especially those that connect and are part of the Mississippi River’s hundreds of watersheds and micro-basins improve our quality of life, reduce crime, increase the health of our communities, increase property values, heighten resilience, reduce impacts from disasters, and address vacant and abandoned property issues.
However, these benefits are only realized if pollutants can be managed and reduced. Plastics have proven to require constant attention. It seems that no matter how many cleanups we coordinate or how many ordinances we have, plastics persist and continue to accumulate at alarming rates.
This issue is especially important in our area of the Mississippi River, because clean water is vital to our tourism industry. Tourism and outdoor recreation comprise the second-largest economy on the Mississippi River and Bemidji is absolutely dependent on our aquatic ecology being completely uncompromised. The crystal-clear waters of the headwaters of the Mississippi River are the largest draw to our area.
Mayors of the MRCTI are committed to looking at how we can attain zero plastic waste in our lakes and rivers. Ideas include implementing local programs, such as encouraging straws upon request to limit waste from restaurants, working with local leaders on voluntary actions, and coordinating with others in translating efforts at the local level.
We believe these efforts can make a huge difference for our environment and help change the culture around single-use plastics.
But, it will take more than this. We will need to examine solutions within the global supply chain as well in order to really have a geometric effect on the oversized marketplace that is the plastics industry.
We, as cities, must encourage and assist the plastics recycling market to further drive down impacts. Working with waste management companies and learning from cities with advanced recycling programs is also part of our commitment.
We look forward to pursuing this work for our corridor to save our River and our Gulf. I say “our Gulf,” because the Bemidji economy depends on the Gulf too, and I hold a measure of responsibility to ensure its sustainability for my friends in New Orleans and all the cities and states in-between.
Rita Albrecht is mayor of Bemidji.