In an era defined by divisive politics, two American rivers are proof points that we can still come together across sectors to find solutions that work.
That’s the good news and also the challenge of this moment, as communities across America race the clock to support the communities and protect the ecosystems of the Mississippi and Colorado rivers.
This year, the Mighty Mississippi has been living up to its menacing nickname, with historic flooding up and down the river threatening cities, towns and farmland from Minnesota to Louisiana.
With hurricane season starting and the Gulf of Mexico steadily encroaching, the last thing southern Louisiana needs is more water.
Meanwhile, in the severely parched West, the Colorado River is facing the opposite problem.
Supply is scarce, and the demand for water currently outpaces the supply. Forty million people rely on this river as a primary water source. Each spring, when irrigation diversions begin but snowpack runoff is still nominal, the Colorado can drop to dangerously low levels. Even an occasional winter where snowfall is plentiful can’t make up for years of water shortage.
Despite this contrast, what we have learned from triumphs and failures in both regions is that solutions do not lie with any one sector; business, philanthropy, government, financial services, scientists, advocates and engaged citizens of all kinds need to pull in the same direction for any real breakthrough. It’s not easy getting so many people from all those disciplines united behind a cause — but we’ve seen it work for both rivers.
For example, local, state and federal leaders across seven states and two countries just came together in the Colorado River Basin to sign the Drought Contingency Plan. This historic agreement will save about 358 billion gallons of water annually. That’s enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool half a million times over.
As we worked on both rivers, we saw time and again that the people who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solutions.
In Louisiana, cross-sector collaboration has enabled passage of Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan and the RESTORE Act, which directs a portion of civil and administrative penalties from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to projects meant to protect Louisiana’s coast.
As we worked on both rivers, we saw time and again that the people who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solutions. While we leverage the best and brightest minds and experts from all around the world, we need the actual buy-in from and leadership of communities on the ground to drive solutions forward.
We are not naive. Across the country, we see aging infrastructure presenting significant challenges, cash-strapped governments unable to keep up with maintenance and a changing climate testing the limits of our existing systems. This work is not for the faint of heart.
But in these two different rivers, with such different stories and challenges, we see that it is still possible for people to come together across multiple sectors, reach across political aisles and work with neighbors across city, county, state and sometimes even national boundaries to find solutions that protect their own interests as well as their neighbors’.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the size and scale of the work that needs to be done to keep rivers like the Mississippi and Colorado flowing and thriving. But as we look at how far we have come for both rivers in the past decade, we are confident about what’s possible. We see evidence that we have all the tools we need to turn the tides on our water crises.