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Protecting the Mississippi

April 22, 2011 By Erica DeJong, Guest Commentary

This is the fourth of an eight-part series on environmental policy in conjunction with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department.

When I was a baby, fussy and wide awake, my dad used to put me to sleep by crooning the Doobie Brothers’ classic, “Old Black Water.” Years later, we carried on the tradition during our car ride rock sessions: air guitars wailing, dashboard pianos jamming, we’d sing, “the catfish are jumpin’, the paddle wheel is thumpin’,” and call for the Mississippi River “to keep on rolling.”

Whether or not you pay tribute to the Mississippi with your air guitar, it is impossible to deny the river’s central role in local culture, economics, and the natural environment. We work on it and play on it. A healthy Minnesota requires a healthy Mississippi River. So, now that a handful of Minnesota legislators are threatening the Mississippi, I hear “that old river calling my name” once again. This time, though, the tune isn’t so jovial.

Legislation seeks to repeal the Department of Natural Resources’ rulemaking authority for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area, a 72-mile stretch of the Mississippi flowing from Anoka to Dakota County. Essentially, it would revoke much of the DNR’s ability to protect land and water along the corridor, an authority it has held for nearly forty years.

The Mississippi River Critical Corridor Area (MRCCA) is the most heavily urbanized portion of the river in Minnesota. By the time the Mississippi exits the corridor, it contains large volumes of agricultural, industrial, and urban pollutants. By the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it releases sludge so toxic that almost nothing can live in it. The Mississippi needs greater protection and conservation. It certainly needs coordinated and consistent oversight guided by the state. And yet, this legislation is a step backward in protecting the river.

In 2009, bipartisan legislation directed the DNR to develop a set of rules for the Critical Area. After two years and exhaustive public input, according to the DNR, the rules are nearly complete. But now, some legislators say the DNR has exceeded its legal time limit and want to scrap the whole idea of implementing these river protections. Killing the 2009 legislation is the wrong way to go.

The DNR’s draft proposals have aimed to create vegetative buffer zones in areas and push future development back from the bluff line in certain locations. According to the DNR, these measures would reduce the amount of soil erosion and contaminated runoff entering the Mississippi. They would also protect downstream users from upstream pollution. Yet, some property owners argue that these rules violate their property rights and are helping to push the legislation, which recently passed in the Minnesota Senate but, so far, has seen little action in the House.

We need the wisdom to see beyond our own property lines. Look downriver: over 50 cities depend upon the Mississippi for drinking water and over 53,000 citizens depend on the Mississippi for jobs. If the repeal were to pass, homeowners and developers may never experience the consequences of increased residential and urban pollution. But those downstream will.

This is bad policy and should reawaken us to the dangers of deregulating our waters and environment. We want a healthy and clean Mississippi River. Our economies, livelihoods, and environments depend upon it.

Erica DeJong is a Macalester student

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