I speak for the trees. And the river that's killing them

I had no idea what I was walking into as I stepped aboard the giant Corps of Engineers boat docked in front of Memorial Auditorium last Tuesday. All I knew was what I read in the paper. The vessel Mississippi was going to be in town and the Mississippi River Commission was taking public input. 

The vessel "Mississippi" where the meeting was held.

Thank god it was a Tuesday, my weekly formal meeting day for which I don khakis and a clean collared shirt. Even then, I was under dressed among the suits and full-on military regalia.

“Are you on the list?” someone asked as I walked up to the registration table. List? Nobody said anything about a list. No problem. They had registration cards for that. 

“Are you giving testimony?” was the next question. Testimony? Clearly, this was not the run of the mill town hall public input session I thought it’d be. They didn’t even have coffee. 

“Um, I guess I’m not fully informed on what exactly this is…” was about all I could come up with. They explained that so-and-so had just given opening remarks, followed by another so-and-so with an important sounding title having just opened the hearing so now they’re taking testimony from the public. 

“So anybody can come here and share their thoughts about the river?” I asked, to which I got a less-than-emphatic yes. 

Sweet. Sign me up. 

I was led up to this very formal conference room where, as luck would have it, there was an empty seat next to Burlington’s City Manager, Chad Bird. At least I knew someone in the crowd. I quietly took the seat, and we exchanged nods. I listened as someone presented about levee issues, complete with a Powerpoint slideshow, to five very formal looking people seated in front. The Commisssion, I presumed.

One break and half a dozen presenters later, I heard, “Mr. Chris Lee” over the intercom. How formal. I stood and puffed my chest a little like I imagined someone called “mister” should. I had jotted some notes so I didn’t sound like I was completely winging it. Or so I hoped. 

“Hello Commission members. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak…” I led in homage to the formality. Then I proceeded to lay out the two big issues that I’ve discussed repeatedly in this very column and on my blog over the years. 

One, our river has a serious sediment issue. I told them that every time it floods, the parking areas at my department’s boat ramps get buried in silt. And in the 15 years I’ve been with this department, we’ve had at least four flood events where FEMA has paid for damages. I have no idea how much money that amounts to across the state or across the watershed, but it’s got to be near-astronomical. 

Two, while the earlier presenters discussed record-setting high-water events a la 1993 and 2008, what I don’t hear anyone discussing is the amount of time the water gets somewhat above flood stage and stays there, thus wrecking both the recreation value and ecology of our river. Extended periods of high water have devastated the bottomland forests on many islands and backwater areas. Nearby examples include the area just north of the Mississippi-Skunk River confluence and Lake Odessa in Louisa County. These areas have hundreds of acres of what used to be maple and cottonwood forests now looking like the Everglades scattered with dead and decaying trees.

And near as I can tell, nobody is paying any attention to any of it. I can’t begin to quantify the extent of the ecological impact, but it must be enormous. 

To me, this is a transportation and commerce issue as much as it is a conservation issue, thus the Corps of Engineers should care. And the solution, in my mind at least, is to deal with the water and sediment well before it reaches the Mississippi in the first place. In other words, apply conservation up in the watershed so that the water stays where it falls a bit longer and then has a chance to shed the sediment it carries before reaching the tributaries that carry it to the Mississippi. 

I noted that the federal Farm Bill is being rewritten this year and that one piece of legislation has more power to implement the necessary conservation practices than any other legislation in existence. Thus, my recommendation to the Commission is to communicate and work with the other federal agencies involved in Farm Bill programs rather than each agency just working in their own silos.

No, it’s not a silver bullet. Nothing is. But imagine if the Corps could work with the Department of Agriculture to focus on slowing the rate at which water reaches the Mississippi and keeping the sediment on the farm fields from which it comes. Done on a broad enough scale, maybe we wouldn’t need taller levees or as much dredging. 

Such was my testimony to the Mississippi River Commission and Corps of Engineers. I have no idea if anything will come from it. I’d expect not. It’s been my experience that getting government to adopt a long-term view and cooperate across agencies is akin to swimming north in front of Burlington. But as the Lorax knows, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

And I’m happy to testify to that.