Stakeholders on the Mississippi River

In his 1989 book “The Control of Nature,” John McPhee addressed the complicated issue of stakeholders in a complex system humans control by describing the many different demands, and expectations of individuals and businesses with an interest in exactly how the Mississippi River flows (1989:21-22).

These four [people joining the cruise meeting on the river], making the effort to advance their special interests, are four among two million nine hundred thousand people whose livelihoods, safety, health, and quality of life are directly influenced by the Corps’ controls at Old River. In years gone by, when there were no control structures, naturally there were no complaints. The water went where it pleased. People took it as it came. The delta was in a state of nature. But now that Old River is valved and metered there are two million nine hundred thousand potential complainers, very few of whom are reluctant to present a grievance to the Corps. When farmers want less water, for example, fishermen want more, and they all complain to the Corps. In General Sands’ words, ‘We’re always walkin’ around with, by and large, the black hat on. There’s no place in the U.S. where there are so many competing interests relating to one water resource.’ Aboard the Mississippi [the boat, not the river], this is the primary theme. Oliver Houck, professor of ecoprudence, is heard to mutter, ‘What the Corps does with the water decides everything.’ And General Sands cheerfully remarks that every time he makes one of these trips he gets ‘beaten on the head and shoulders.’ He continues, ‘In most water-resources stories, you can identify two sides. Here there are many more. The crawfisherman and the shrimper come up within five minutes asking for opposite things. The crawfishermen say, ‘Put more water in, the water is low.’ Shrimpers don’t want more water. They are benefitted by low water. Navigation interests say, ‘The water is too low, don’t take more away or you’ll have to dredge.’ Municipal interests say, ‘Keep the water high or you’ll increase saltwater intrusion.’ In the high-water season, everybody is interested in less water. As the water starts dropping, upstream farmers say, ‘Get the water off of us quicker.’ But folks downstream don’t want it quicker. As water levels go up, we divert some fresh water into marshes, because the marshes need it for the nutrients and sedimentation, but oyster fishermen complain. They all complain except the ones who have seed oyster beds, which are destroyed by excessive salinity. The variety of competing influences is phenomenal.'”

Questions to facilitate your conceptual weaving process:

Many evaluators have stressed the importance of including all stakeholders in evaluations of various activites or community projects. Generally this is a matter of inclusion and representation.  How do the comments about stakeholders made by the Army Corps of Engineer General in charge of flood control systems on the Mississippi River impact your thoughts about stakeholders in engineered ecosystems?

We don’t usually think of forests as engineered ecosystems, but of course fire suppression is a type of intervention. Timber industry representatives and wildfire ecologists see salvage logging after a wildfire very differently. What sorts of issues does this add to considerations of stakeholder inclusion or representation in environmental evaluation work?

General Sands says, regarding the conflicting demands of stakeholders on the Mississippi: “The variety of competing influences is phenomenal.” Is there some pre-determined level of stakeholder conflict that would be great enough to trigger “cancellation” of a given environmental engineering project? That is, if during the planning stage it became clear that a large number of stakeholders would be perpetually demanding conditions or actions that conflicted with the demands of other large groups of stakeholders, is there some point at which government or other officials would decide to not carry out the planned environmental intervention project but to leave the situation in its current state? What sorts of criteria might be at play here, that could permit this to happen or else to not happen? What values? What paradigms?

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