Things at Audubon International have been especially busy (and exciting) over the past few months, and there are a seemingly endless number of “blog worthy” topics to write about. That said, I thought it would be worthwhile to take the time to highlight one of the important regional efforts (actually, in many ways it’s more of a national effort) – the America’s Great Watershed Initiative (AGWI) – that our organization is participating in. 

AGWI is a diverse collaboration of stakeholders looking for comprehensive, commonsense solutions that will allow society to sustainably manage the vast and complex natural resources of the MRB while meeting the growing list of demands that we collectively place on this watershed. To accomplish this broad goal, AGWI is attempting to bring the full range of issues, ideas, and stakeholders to bear. In contrast to single sector/purpose advocacy, AGWI seeks to build and implement a vision based on collaboration, goal integration, and mutually beneficial outcomes.The Mississippi River Basin (MRB), which collectively covers more than 40% of the continental U.S. land mass, is home to many nationally significant assets. These include navigation channels, levees, dikes, public lands, facilities, military installations, parks, forests, wildlife refuges, monuments and museums. Large-scale issues like protracted droughts and floods, altered flow regimes, pollution and nutrient loading, sedimentation, climate change, urban sprawl and diffuse land development, agricultural production, demand for freshwater resources, threats to native biodiversity including exotic species, and other environmental stressors collectively make protecting and managing natural resources in the MRB a complex challenge. These challenges have formed the driving force behind AGWI.

Rather than simply “reinvent the wheel,” AGWI is attempting to promote sustainable natural resource management in the MRB by building on strong public and private sector leadership already present in many of the MRB’s tributary watersheds. AGWI seeks to link and augment these existing efforts, creating a broader partnership that can serve as a unified voice for the whole system. The philosophy here is that we need a “multi-sector” coalition in order to effectively address issues that span multiple regions and issues such as energy, transportation, water quality and floodplain management. 

Last month, AGWI organizers invited elected officials, leaders of industry, government agencies, the non-profit community, and academia from throughout the MRB to participate in a two-day interactive stakeholder summit in St. Louis, Missouri. Several hundred stakeholders – including Audubon International – participated in the forum. Attendees came from each of the MRB’s six major sub-basins (Upper Mississippi River, Lower Mississippi River, Missouri River, Ohio River, Tennessee River, and Arkansas-White River).

In addition to using the summit to officially launch AGWI, the diverse group explored collaborative ways to address geographic, institutional and issue-based barriers (as presented in a video that can be viewed here). More specifically, participants engaged in the following while at the summit: 

  • Reviewed options for establishing AGWI as an enduring organization that will connect basin-wide stakeholders and institutions and harness best science to create a shared vision as well as a more integrated management system within the watershed.
  • Reviewed a sample ‘report card’ of river health to help assess the condition of the Mississippi River over time.
  • Articulated key messages about the economic, social and ecological importance of the Mississippi River and its basin–particularly how management changes are needed to protect this nationally and internationally important resource in the long-term.

The summit itself represented a small – but very important – step in what will undoubtedly be a long journey toward a more sustainably managed Mississippi River and its watershed. Naturally, a 200-year vision cannot be achieved in the course of a single two-day stakeholder forum, but I have faith that AGWI will provide a valuable vehicle for facilitating significant long-term changes in the environmental and socioeconomic health of the MRB. Audubon International will continue committing its own resources and organizational capacity in support of this effort, and also do what we can to ensure that our own award-winning environmental education and certification programs advance AGWI’s goals.

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