America’s Watershed Initiative: Sustaining a Critical Waterway

April 1, 2024

“I really believe that rivers connect us in all kinds of ways.” - Kimberly Lutz, Executive Director, America’s Watershed Initiative (Photo: AWI)
“I really believe that rivers connect us in all kinds of ways.” - Kimberly Lutz, Executive Director, America’s Watershed Initiative (Photo: AWI)

Kimberly Lutz and America’s Watershed Initiative (AWI) are making every effort to sustain the Mississippi River for generations to come.

The Mississippi River is one of the world’s largest river systems and is arguably America’s most critical waterway. Flowing over 2,350 miles, spanning, at points, up to eleven miles, and discharging approximately 593,003 cubic feet of water per second into the Gulf of Mexico, the Mighty Mississippi is awe inspiring in terms of its natural characteristics as well as its commercial impact on both the American and global economies. According to the National Park Service, the Mississippi basin's agribusiness industry produces 92% of the U.S. agricultural exports as well as 78% of the world's feed grain and soybean exports, while some 60% of all grain exported from the U.S. is shipped on the Mississippi River through the Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana. In short, the environmental and commercial impacts of the Mississippi River are nearly immeasurable for the stakeholders that rely upon this crucial waterway around the country and the globe.

Due to the immense importance of the Mississippi River and its watershed, many organizations exist to ensure its sustainability and growth. One of these is America’s Watershed Initiative (AWI), based in St. Louis. The organization works with hundreds of business, government, academic, and civic organizations to help improve the health and sustainability of this sprawling waterway system and the vital flow of maritime commerce it enables. To understand what such a task entails, Marine News spoke with AWI’s executive director, Kimberly Lutz.

AWI’s mission is to “collaborate with a broad cross section of partners to develop shared solutions and to secure a future in which the rivers and people of the Mississippi watershed thrive,” Lutz says.

With a deep understanding of the critical nature of her organization’s work, Lutz describes the tremendous impact that the watershed has on the lives of millions of people in the country and the world. Noting that the river provides drinking water for millions of people, crucial maritime shipping routes with national and global implications, and a diverse habitat for an equally diverse range of wildlife, Lutz maintains an impressive grasp on the scope of the resource her organization is tasked with safeguarding. In her words, “There frankly is no system in the U.S. or, really, around the world like the Mississippi River that’s as complicated in the variety of issues, the geographic space, [and] the diversity of partners.”

(Photo: AWI)

As the executive director of AWI, Lutz is responsible for communicating with a broad spectrum of leaders to keep them informed, and to work with them to solve some of the more pressing issues facing the Mississippi River system. Working with over 30 states in conjunction with the federal government, the responsibility impressed upon the executive director of AWI is massive.

With a deep personal connection to the resource that she strives to protect and improve, Lutz is clearly passionate about her role. “People always want to know why I do this work. Both of my grandparents lived the majority of their lives in the basin . . . [and] I spent almost every summer in my childhood either in Wisconsin or Illinois,” she says. “I really believe that rivers connect us in all kinds of ways. So the idea of being able to lead an organization that is trying to connect all the various partners across this vast and important basin-- I just feel very honored to be able to do this work and to work with my board who is equally committed.”

AWI’s board is comprised of representatives from a broad range of stakeholders, from barging companies and universities, to engineering and industrial firms. This diversity helps to illustrate the wide-reaching impact of the organization’s efforts to safeguard the Mississippi River watershed and all that it provides.

Since its inception in 2010, AWI has organized and attended meetings where industry leaders, technical advisory teams, and AWI representatives come together to tackle some of the most important issues related to the health, sustainability, and growth of the watershed. During such meetings, attendees discuss trends related to the health of the watershed and key items that should be communicated to other stakeholders.

AWI also uses a variety of tools for collaboration with stakeholders and industry partners. One of AWI’s most impactful tools is its Mississippi River Watershed Report Cards, which convey information regarding areas influenced by the Mississippi River, including economic impacts, recreation, water supply, ecosystems, flood control measures, and transportation. Lutz describes the report card as a tool to communicate with industry partners to both inform them about the health of these various aspects of the waterway and watershed, and to seek their assistance in addressing some of the areas needing improvement.

(Photo: AWI)

When asked how she envisions the future of the Mississippi River, Lutz says she imagines a “vital river system that is providing drinking water, recreation, habitat, and an economic engine for America” supporting a navigation network that delivers tons of goods and billions in economic value to the American and global economies.

Turning that vision into a reality does not come without its challenges. Some of the more pressing challenges impacting the health and prosperity of the watershed are floods, droughts, water pollution, and development, Lutz says. When asked about her biggest concern, she cites changing weather patterns and extreme weather in particular, and she notes the effects of such changes on the lives of those that rely upon the watershed itself. Highlighting changing precipitation patterns in the Midwest, earlier snow melts in the North, and instances of floods and droughts, Lutz expresses concern over the effects of a changing environment and its implications and disruption to conventional barge traffic in different ways. “Extreme floods and droughts happening in the same year is not something that we’re used to,” she says.

A combination of natural and man-made resources are used in parallel to combat these problems. Recognizing that a healthy Mississippi watershed is crucial for both maritime transportation and our environment, Lutz asserts that those who work with and within AWI recognize that it’s a false choice to say one aspect is more important than the other. “We think it can be both and should be both,” Lutz says.

Although much progress has been made thanks to the work of AWI and its partners, Lutz insists there is still more work to be done, and there is still room for improving the watershed itself and the way in which leaders in the maritime industry and state, local, and federal government agencies work together. According to Lutz, cross-organizational and interstate and interagency collaboration is key. “We cannot meet [these] challenges unless we look across the entire watershed and find mutual understanding and shared solutions.”

(Photo: AWI)

Looking toward the next few years, Lutz plans to evaluate the next Mississippi River Watershed Report Card. Noting that she plans to reach out to industry partners to seek their feedback about the various things AWI should be measuring in its report card, she describes an eagerness to expand the scope of the sectors explored within this valuable tool. Although the current versions of the report card focus heavily on the condition of infrastructure, the amount of funding for the infrastructure, and the age and repair of the infrastructure, AWI seeks to ensure such metrics are “the right metrics.” Lutz asks, “What else should we add? What trends have they seen in the industry? What should we be measuring? What should we be communicating? To whom should we be communicating?”

Moving forward, AWI seeks to improve shared goal development and to further encourage industry leaders to get involved in ensuring this “economic engine” and natural resource continues to provide people from around the nation and the world with the benefits of the Mighty Mississippi.

Those with a stake in the wellbeing of the Mississippi can rest assured that Lutz and AWI are making every effort to sustain America’s critical waterway for generations to come.

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