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St. Louis hosts meeting on Mississippi River and river town resiliency

The view of the St. Louis Arch from Illinois as the Mississippi River floods in June 2019. The 2019 flooding event was only surpassed by floods in 1993.
Mary Delach Leonard
St. Louis Public Radio
The view of the St. Louis Gateway Arch from Illinois as the Mississippi River floods in June 2019. The 2019 flooding was only surpassed by floods in 1993.

Leaders from cities along the entire length of the Mississippi River and representatives from federal agencies are in St. Louis this week for a meeting of river communities.

The 11th annual Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative meeting comes at a critical moment when a changing climate is ratcheting stress on the Mississippi, said Colin Wellenkamp, the initiative’s executive director.

“We have been going through a lot of flash flooding, intense heat, storms over the past few years,” he said. “Biggest one was in 2019, and then the St. Louis area just went through some significant flash floods at the end of July, beginning of August.”

Over three days, the meeting will showcase projects and discussions geared toward building the natural ecology and resiliency in specific places along the length of the river. They’re projects that will restore habitat, clean the water and create spaces that can absorb excess water in the event of flash or prolonged flooding.

“These natural assets will increase our capacity to absorb that water and move it into natural areas instead of into small businesses and people’s basements,” he said.

Organizers plan to showcase a resilience project at Horseshoe Lake in Illinois on Wednesday. Wellenkamp explained that St. Louis is well positioned to play host to such an event since it’s at or near the confluences of the Mississippi and Missouri, Illinois and Ohio rivers.

“St. Louis is really at the focal point,” he said. “It really does create opportunities for this region to showcase what ‘nearwater communities’ can do to stay where they are in an era of increased risk and climate issues and still prosper.”

It’s also an opportunity to push Congress to pass a first-ever ecological restoration program that would extend from St. Louis down the Mississippi through communities like Memphis and Baton Rouge, Wellenkamp added.

This year’s meeting comes as many communities along the Mississippi are reevaluating the value they see in the river after shunning it for years, he said. Last week, the St. Louis Port Authority approved a resolution that could bring a major riverfront development to north St. Louis.

“We have a tremendous renaissance unfolding on the Mississippi River right now,” Wellenkamp said. “Cities are recognizing it as their natural asset.”

Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio. 

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.