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Groups Seek To Clean Up Miss. River

April 22, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A $1.1 billion infusion of federal money to reverse the buildup of sediment and pollution in the upper Mississippi River may be a smart investment, according to a new plan for the river’s future.

Keeping the river’s navigation channels free of silt alone costs $100 million a year, according to the review released Wednesday by a coalition of environmentalists and others concerned about the Mighty Mississippi’s future.

And farmers lose more than $320 million a year from having to apply extra nitrogen fertilizer due to runoff, adding to the cost of habitat preservation and municipal water treatment, they said.

So the group is asking Congress for $1.1 billion in federal funds over the next 10 years _ which would represent a 40 percent increase over current annual spending _ to help cure the Mississippi’s ills and make such expensive fixes unnecessary.

``When you put it in the context of how much we’re spending to fix problems _ or not to fix problems _ it really isn’t a lot of money,″ said Barry Drazkowski, co-director of the Winona, Minn.-based Resource Studies Center, which assembled the proposal.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., co-chairman of Congress’ Upper Mississippi River Task Force, said the plan needs solid promises of funding from the states in the watershed before it will find much support in Congress.

``If we don’t get cooperation and commitment at the state and local level, it’s not going to go very far,″ he said.

The plan grew out of a collaboration between environmental groups and barge interests to find a compromise in addressing the river’s needs.

At stake is the future transportation of the 90 million tons of cargo on the Mississippi, as well as the region’s $1.2 billion recreation industry, drinking water quality and important habitats for over 400 species.

Among the river’s chief problems are:

_ Sediment buildups in backwater areas that suffocate underwater plants, deprive fish of food and shelter, and clog navigation channels, which then require costly dredging.

_ Fertilizer and other pollutants that flow from farmland and new residential developments and contaminate the water.

The plan calls for expanding federal programs that give farmers technical advice about making crop production more environmentally friendly and pay them to change their farming practices. Participation would remain voluntary.

The proposal also says federal agencies should have more flexibility to target areas most in need of help, even a single stream or farm. That means greater cooperation between the 75 local, state, federal and private programs now working to improve the river.

Those many programs are doing little now to improve conditions on the river because there is so little cooperation and so many misdirected efforts, said Scott Faber with American Rivers, one of the groups leading the effort.

``In some places we’re spending too much money ... and in some places we’re spending no money,″ Faber said. ``It sounds crazy, but we’ve never stepped back and asked ourselves how we can best spend our resources in the upper Mississippi region.″

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