Mayors from cities along the Mississippi River have always known it to be mighty, but they didn't know just how strong it was until last week.
Yes, the river pumps millions of gallons of water past its cities every day, but the mayors found that it also pumps billions of dollars into them each year. The group had those dollars counted, and the figure was "significantly higher than anticipated."
The river generates $405 billion in revenues each year and supports 1.3 million jobs, according to new numbers released last week by the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative (MRCTI). That's a group of 68 mayors from towns and cities in 10 states along the Mississippi River. The group is co-chaired by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton.
"The Mississippi is much mightier than even we realized," said Roy Buol, MRCTI co-chair and mayor of Dubuque, Iowa. "We must now move forward strategically and purposefully to protect this national resource and economic force."
Counting the dollars and jobs will help the group of mayors in their efforts to bring national attention back to the Mississippi River, which the group calls "America's most critical natural asset." They'll use the information as ammunition to lobby for the river.
"If there's a group of people in the world that get things done, it's mayors," said John Dickert, mayor of Racine, Wisconsin. "With almost 200 cities representing over 20 million people, we are a force that will be recognized in state capitals and in Washington, D.C., as advocates for this tremendous resource."
Businesses and governments depend on the river for tourism, agriculture, and manufacturing, the top three industries for jobs along the Mississippi. More than 20 million citizens depend on the river as a source of drinking water, according to the MRCTI, withdrawing about 633 million gallons of water per day.
All of these, the mayors said, depend on clean water. So, water quality is one of the group's major areas of focus. The MRCTI will work with states to implement clean water goals and work with agriculture groups to incentivize sustainable farming practices.
The Mississippi River Valley is the largest food-producing zone on the planet, according to St. Paul, Minnesota, Mayor Christopher Coleman. The valley will likely be tapped to produce even more food, he said, as the United States Department of Agriculture predicts farmers will need to produce more food in the next 35 years than they have in the last 10,000 years.
But the "great unknown" in that request, Coleman said, is climate change. Over the last few years, he said, the change is responsible for historic flood events, a massive drought in 2012, Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Issac.
He compared the Mississippi to other food-producing river valleys like the Amazon, Danube, and the Rhine. But if climate change impedes global food production, "the gap will likely fall on the Mississippi River."
A delegation from the MRCTI will travel to Paris in December to attend the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and, so far, Wharton is slated to go. The group will discuss sustainable agriculture practices with those in the other food-producing river valleys.
"A dramatic increase in agricultural output in our river valley using unsustainable practices could devastate our region and the natural assets we depend upon," Coleman said.