In 1986 Congress authorized the Upper Mississippi River Restoration (also known as the Environmental Management Program) to restore and enhance river habitat and mitigate the environmental impacts of the lock and dam system on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. With the program approaching its thirtieth birthday, a lot of Mississippi River managers, scientists, and members of Congress are asking, “What has the program given back?”
Since then, the program has completed more than 50 habitat rehabilitation and enhancement projects between the Twin Cities and St. Louis, restoring over 100,000 acres of vital habitat, at an average cost per acre of $3,000. More than $400 million has been dedicated to make the goals of the program become reality and about 70% of that amount has gone directly to habitat construction.
So what does this mean for the economy? At the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee meeting this week, one contractor tried to answer that question, or part of it.
A representative from JF Brennan Company, Inc., based in La Crosse, WI, reviewed two recent habitat restoration contracts that were typical in the size and scope of Upper Mississippi River Restoration program projects. Both contracts required 50% of the 12 person labor force to come from the local community. The contractors spent $231,000 and $431,000 locally at each project site on local vendors on goods ranging from food and motel rooms to fuel and equipment repairs. The population of the local communities near both of these sites was less than 5,000.
While this is a really small sample size, let’s extrapolate this information. Assuming each of the more than 50 habitat restoration projects spent $331,000 on local vendors, that’s a $16.5 million contribution to small businesses along the Mississippi River. And that’s more than 300 people hired in rural counties where, so often, unemployment is the highest following the closure of factories and other industries along the river.
Of course another important economic contribution of these restoration projects is eco-based tourism. Many of these sites have become popular fishing tournament locations, which by some estimates, brings about $11 million to the local economy per event. And scientists estimated in a 1997 Nature article that healthy floodplains and rivers deliver about $8,080 per acre annually in economic benefits like flood risk reduction and pollution filtration. Adjusting for inflation and applying that figure over the more than 100,000 acres restored on the Upper Mississippi River through the program – that something like $1.2 billion in annual benefits from the ecosystem alone!
So, I made some generalizations here, but I don’t think I’m stretching the truth about the economic benefits of the Upper Mississippi River Restoration program. For only $400 million, we are getting well over $1 billion annually in ecosystem service benefits; hundreds of union wage construction jobs; and probably tens of millions has been and will continue to be infused directly into small businesses to support construction and eco-based tourism. These are huge benefits, and I’m glad Congress decided in 2014 to maximize funding for the program, which will grow the economic benefits even more.
Regional Conservation Coordinator
Izaak Walton League