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Report card: Mississippi River basin gets a D+

(Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)

The Mississippi River basin got its first-ever report card from the America’s Watershed Initiative ... and it was nothing to write home about.

The overall grade is D+.

The America’s Watershed Initiative, which formed in 2010, focused on six areas: clean water, marine transportation, flood control, the economy, recreation and ecosystem health. The organization worked with 700 stakeholders and 400 experts to grade each area.

"A D+ is not a grade you want to bring home and show your parents, so there are certainly some areas of concern," said Heath Kelsey, a project lead on the report and a program director at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science.

One of the biggest concerns is transportation, which received the lowest grade of all six areas with a D-. Kelsey said while up to 97 percent of locks and dams are in good condition, the remaining infrastructure is in failing or near failing condition.

"That 2 or 3 percent is a really big deal," he said. "We need to be concerned about that because the system is very interdependent and one failed lock can have cascading effects throughout the rest of the system."

Flood control and risk reduction received a D+, based on the number of people at risk and the condition of flood protection. The remaining areas of ecosystems, water supply, economy and recreation all received Cs.

The Mississippi River basin is massive, reaching 31 states and covering more than 40 percent of the United States. Mayors from several cities attended the America’s Watershed Initiative meeting in St. Louis on Wednesday, including Mayor Francis Slay.

Slay said he wants to see the federal government step up with more funding for infrastructure.

"The Mississippi River is not a local asset," the mayor said. "This is a river that supports a huge amount of the economy in the United States of America ... so it’s important that we maintain it as an economic engine and from a clean water standpoint, as well."

Slay is one of 68 mayors who belong to the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative, which formed three years ago. That group says that state and local governments provided $320 billion of the $416 billion spent on transportation and water infrastructure on the Mississippi River in 2014.

At the same time, the river creates about $400 billion worth of U.S. GDP and about 1.3 million jobs.

"But that economic profile is on borrowed time unless we can address our infrastructure needs and improve our water quality," Slay said.

Treating the river basin as a whole system is something that was critical to the report, according to Michael Reuter. The director of the Nature Conservancy’s North America Water Program said no one can get what they want working in isolation; and involving 400 organizations in the report was critical.

"It’s through this collaboration and through this united approach that we think we can all get more of what we want for the river, whether it’s environmental restoration, to commerce, to drinking water for cities; all these things are tied together," Reuter said. 

The report’s authors said they want it to serve as a call to action and as a way to begin tracking the Mississippi River basin’s progress. America's Watershed Initiative officials said their leadership team is developing a three-year action plan to help raise the grade.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.