In Paris, the stakes could not be higher

As we head to Paris, we stand with the people of that great city following the devastating terror attacks. Whether you’re on the Mississippi, the Potomac, or the Seine, we are connected through our freedoms. We go to show solidarity; but we also go with a broader mission. 

There is much at stake in Paris during the United Nations Climate Conference, much more than polar bears and inconvenient weather. Our ability to produce food and have access to clean fresh water are also at stake. River basins generate the majority of the world’s food and rivers sustain the majority of freshwater withdraws. 

Changes in our climate are compromising the ability of our river basins to produce food and provide freshwater. Thus, one of the greatest threats to the world from climate change is a dramatic alteration to our food supply and decrease of freshwater. 

Sixty-five percent of the drinking water in the U.S. comes from rivers and streams. Washington, DC sources its water from the Potomac River; fifty U.S. cities use the Mississippi River alone as a drinking water source providing for over 20 million people. In California, two-thirds of the state’s population (26 million people) depends on the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta fed by the Sacramento River for water supply. This delta resides adjacent to the Pacific Ocean at sea level leaving the fresh water and a tremendous food source vulnerable to ocean-level rise. Federal programs like the state revolving loans funds, water pollution control grants, and the Land & Water Conservation Fund will need to take priority to meet what is coming over the next few years.  

With the worlds’ population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the world needs to produce more food in the next 35 years than we have in the last ten thousand. And, according to a 2012 Frontier Economics Report, a quarter of global economic output will come from the world’s 10 most populous river basins. 

Feeding so many people is a big job.  As climate change threatens the planet’s major food-producing basins, we are concerned that the Mississippi River Valley will need to produce more food to compensate for decreased food output worldwide. If that delta is bridged through conventional agriculture, our ecology will be devastated from the massive amount of inputs used to meet such a demand. 

As mayors from towns and cities along the world’s top food-producing river basin, we need to be leaders in protecting the planet’s river basins from climate disruption. After all, we know something about climate disruption and basin management following Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Isaac, the 500-year flood events of 2011, and the 50-year drought of 2012.  That’s why four of us–who are part of a mayoral delegation representing 68 mayor members of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative–are headed to the United Nation’s climate change meeting in Paris.  

While in Paris, we will host talks with representatives from food-producing river basins to assemble the beginning of an international river sustainability agreement among food-producing basins that works to protect both the water and food security of the world. These talks will help determine the challenges of implementing integrated water management andsustainable agricultural practices as well as develop solutions on how food and drinking water security may be achieved at an international level. 

It will take more than our group of 68 mayors to see this through.  The administration and Congress must also join our quest. We are hopeful thiswill be the case as the relatively new, bi-cameral Mississippi River Caucus continues to engage on these issues.  Also, the Ppresident has shown his support for protecting our rivers, including significantly more money over the past two years for the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program. And of course, the U.S. continues to play a leading role in food security through the Feed the Future Program at USAID. 

As mayors on a mission, we look forward to partnering with Congress and the administration as we push forward with developing a multinational agreement on river basin sustainability.  Climate disruption is real, with implications for people and polar bears alike.  With the stakes so high, our mayors, our federal government, and our people cannot stand by and hope that others find a solution.


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