'It would be the biggest compact ever:' Proposal looks to protect Mississippi River

Barges await movement on the Mississippi River in St. Paul
Barges already loaded with soybeans, potash or scrap steel await movement on the Mississippi River in St. Paul as spring flooding interrupts shipments on the river.
Jim Mone | AP 2019

Mayors from cities all along the Mississippi River's 10 states are meeting in Bemidji. It's the annual meeting of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. And of course, a big focus is the 2,340 miles of flowing water that these cities share. But how it will be shared in the future is in the spotlight.

Mayors from cities along the river are expected to vote on whether to support what is being called the “Mississippi River Compact.” The agreement could set the stage for who gets to use the water from the Mississippi in the U.S. and how it’s used.

State Senator John Hoffman (DFL-Champlin) and Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari, the executive director of the Center for Water Security and Cooperation and an adjunct professor of Water Law at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and American University Washington College of Law join MPR News guest host Emily Bright.

Both shared a presentation on the “Mississippi River Compact” at the conference.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: Right now, mayors from cities all along the Mississippi River's 10 states are meeting in Bemidji. It's the annual meeting of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. And of course, a big focus, the 2,340 miles of flowing water that these cities share. But how will it be shared in the future? That's in the spotlight.

Mayors from cities along the river are expected to vote on whether to support what is being called the Mississippi River Compact. The agreement could set the stage for who gets to use the water from the Mississippi in the US and how it gets used. Joining us now is State Senator John Hoffman. He's a DFLer representing Champlin. Also with us is Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari, the Executive Director of the Center for Water Security and Cooperation and an adjunct professor of water law at the University of Midland Carey School of Law and American University Washington College of Law.

Both are at the conference right now and part of the presentation of this compact Thank you for joining us during your break in the session.

JOHN HOFFMAN: It's great to be here.

ALEXANDRA CAMPBELL-FERRARI: Thank you for having us.

INTERVIEWER: Senator Hoffman, we'll start with you. Why now? Why is there a push to start creating guidelines for the Mississippi River?

JOHN HOFFMAN: Well, a couple of things. First of all, if you look at the Mississippi River Basin, it is a vital national resource, right? And we need to look at it from a comprehensive and cooperative management viewpoint, right? What this Mississippi River Compact would do is be modeled after the successful Great Lakes Compact. And it's really going to provide a framework for addressing the current and future water challenges while promoting our sustainability, economic development, and our ecosystem protection, right? And the states, time within the 10 states along there, but also, eventually, the 31 states that make up the whole river basin to come together and work towards a shared vision for that responsible stewardship of this invaluable water source.

INTERVIEWER: Well, Alexandra, you study water law. Why is it important to have a compact like this?

ALEXANDRA CAMPBELL-FERRARI: It's just incredibly important for any kind of shared water body where there's multiple states that have different approaches to addressing how water is withdrawn, whether or not they approve pipelines. There should be some kind of harmonized approach to, especially, such an important water resource like the Mississippi River.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. I know studies have predicted that by 2030, global demand for water will exceed the supply by 40% if current practices continue. Senator, do you believe it's our responsibility to share water from the Mississippi to other states, such as in the Southwest?

JOHN HOFFMAN: Diverting the Mississippi into those other states really are some challenges. There's a geographic intractability. There's an ecosystem disruption. You got some legal and economic impacts, right? We move our products from Minnesota all the way down that Mississippi River.

And the other thing touches on is the environmental consequences that could occur about lowering the water, which then gets to the real issue is there's drought right now. There's water scarcity issue that's sitting in front of us.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. It's complicated. There's so much to consider. Alexandra, what are the pros and cons of diverting water? Is giving water to states in the Southwest something that's even feasible?

ALEXANDRA CAMPBELL-FERRARI: Sure. I think from a technical perspective, I agree with the senator. Water is heavy. To move water just takes a ton of energy. And I think overall, that's not a very effective use of our water resources, our energy.

I think from a legal perspective, there's a lot more that we can do. Our water laws at the state level, at the federal level are just not good enough in light of climate change and in light of our current levels of use. They need to be better at protecting our existing water resources, our environmental flows, on reducing pollution, on protecting our access to drinking water. And so I think until I see that improvement in state and federal water laws, I don't think we're at that point.

I don't think we should be encouraging those kinds of diversions. But on the opposite side, there needs to be an all of the United States and all of these river basin approaches. So as a cohesive group of 50 states and as cohesive river basins, we do have to think of the needs of our citizens, which is why at the state level, we need to be doing so much better and at the river basin level.


JOHN HOFFMAN: And in addition to that, Emily, it's 40%, if you look at the river basin, the Mississippi River Basin, that's 40% of our greater collective. And the sustainable and cooperative approaches to water management and conservation, those things should be pursued to address those water related challenges in these regions, not leveraging one against the other. That just doesn't make sense.

INTERVIEWER: I know the-- please go ahead.

ALEXANDRA CAMPBELL-FERRARI: Even just to add on that, we shouldn't get to that point. We should never get to the point where we have to divert large amounts of water from the Mississippi River. I think if we get to that point, that means that our laws have failed us and that we can do better.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. You mentioned drought, which we're in. I know Mississippi water levels have become more unpredictable with climate change. Last year, they fell so low they disrupted barge traffic. And in the same year, we saw devastating flooding here in Minnesota from the river. So, Senator, would this compact address those kind of things?

JOHN HOFFMAN: It could, because when you're looking at that demonstrated leadership, one of the things is preserving that natural heritage, right, that the significance of the Mississippi River has. Preserving the heritage for future generations is beyond any utilitarian purpose at all. And the colonel from the Army Corps of Engineers talked about in Minnesota, you had this heavy amount of rain and then you had a quick drop because of drought, and that caused sediment.

We have now have a sediment problem in our north basin all the way down to where the Rum River meets the Mississippi River. You can't even get your boats downtown Anoka anymore because of the sediment problem that's there. So that addresses it.

INTERVIEWER: OK. The Mississippi is such an important resource for Minnesota through recreation, wildlife, agriculture, manufacturing, drinking water. I think I'm at least ticking off the top five. Would this compact address all of those things?

JOHN HOFFMAN: I believe that. One of the conversations, and this is where Alexandra really gets into the conversation, is when you identify, you got to do a feasibility study, first of all, but you also have to do, what is our shared values? And it would be the largest compact ever, right?

You've got these smaller little pockets that have compacts, but this would be the largest. And so it would be really designing through the workforces, the task forces that are going to be established from this to say, what are our shared values that we can all agree upon along this beautiful 2,340 mile stretch of water?

INTERVIEWER: And, Senator, you mentioned that compact in place for the Great Lakes, which Minnesota is part of, and that bans diversion of Great Lakes water outside the basin, with limited exceptions-- and it tracks water permits and withdrawals. So would the Mississippi River Compact be something similar?

JOHN HOFFMAN: Absolutely. Because when you look at it, one of the things the Great Lakes does is there's the shared resource management piece that they do in that even though each district, or the part of it, has distinct interests and needs, but establishing a compact would allow these states to collectively, as a group, manage the river's resources and ensure that it's protected for both the current and for future. We're talking about future generations.

The chair of one of the tribes here said yesterday, water is life. And he said it again this morning. He said water is life. And so we agree with that.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, Alexandra, big question for you-- so what are the biggest problems facing states along the Mississippi River right now and the biggest threats in the future?

ALEXANDRA CAMPBELL-FERRARI: Sure. Well, from some of just what I've heard this past few days is sedimentation is a huge issue. A huge concern is navigation as a result. This is a huge corridor for navigation in terms of the transport of goods and services that needs to be maintained in order to support the economy. Second is water quality. Protecting water quality from non-point source pollution is a huge deal.

And that leads into the quality of our drinking water. The more that you have to treat the water resources that you're bringing in, the more expensive our drinking water becomes, which means it has a domino effect in terms of affordability and all kinds of other things. I would say third, something that the tribes in their comments provided were concerns about pipelines. There are a number of new pipelines being constructed that go across and into the Mississippi River.

That poses a tremendous threat to water resources and their quality. And I would say fourth is just having that unified and harmonized vision across the Mississippi River. I think that is probably one of the biggest needs and challenges right now, especially as they're facing climate change and the variability in rainfall, the variability in access of water resources. That can, at least in part, be resolved by having better rules and laws in place.


JOHN HOFFMAN: And, Emily, that gets into the whole issue of what Alexandra is talking about is a conflict resolution, right? One of the things you try to strive for in a compact is those states that share the river, there's a framework for resolving disputes through negotiation and collaboration rather than litigation. And that ultimately saves time and resources in the long run.

INTERVIEWER: Definitely. Well, I understand there's a vote tomorrow at the conference to get the wheels turning on this compact. Senator, do you expect support from the mayors?

JOHN HOFFMAN: You know what? I do. I'm taking the over, not the under, on this one, Emily.

INTERVIEWER: OK. Last question, if there is an agreement to some form of this compact, what's next?

JOHN HOFFMAN: Alexandra, one of the things we talked about was, what is next, right? You have to then start to get people to define the compact, and drafting the compact, initiating the process. You got to get public input and feedback. You got to get negotiations and amendments, and there's approval and adoption.

Alexandra has a couple of different thoughts on that as it goes forward that she's going to share with the mayors on what's next. How does the legislature get involved in this, just like the Great Lakes Compact was.

INTERVIEWER: I would love to hear more, but, unfortunately, we are out of time. We'll have to connect with you again in the future. But I want to thank you both so much for your time.


JOHN HOFFMAN: Thanks, Emily.

INTERVIEWER: State Senator John Hoffman is a DFLer representing Champlin, and Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari is the Executive Director of the Center for Water Security and Cooperation and an adjunct professor of water law.

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