Mississippi River conference brings new voices to table

River Action
Kathy Wine, left, executive director of River Action, is shown during a river clean-up event in Moline this summer. River Action helped present the 16th annual Upper Mississippi River Conference on Oct. 19-20 in Moline. CREDIT DAVE THOMPSON

The 16th annual Upper Mississippi River Conference (UMRC) wrapped up a “fabulous” two-day event Thursday, Oct. 20, which the leader of the agency that presented it said brought new and welcome voices to the climate change discussion.

“It was fabulous,” River Action Executive Director Kathy Wine said of the Oct. 19-20 conference at Stoney Creek Hotel & Conference Center in downtown Moline. “We had better engagement with the audience than we’ve ever had,” she said. That can be a real challenge for daylong sessions that begin early and don’t end until 4 p.m., she added.

 “I can’t say enough about it,” Ms. Wine said the morning after the event.

She also was pleased that engaged Quad Cities youth and local media leaders took part in some of the liveliest and enjoyable sessions of the event.

Ms. Wine pointed in particular to the “stellar” panel discussion led by former Quad-City Times journalists who are now freelancers, Alma Gaul and Ed Tibbetts (whose work appears in the QCBJ), and Zachary Oren Smith of Iowa Public Radio.

“The group we spoke to had a lot of really good questions and the participants seemed to me, anyway, to recognize the importance of news organizations in helping the public understand the gravity of climate change,” Mr. Tibbetts said.

“I’ve never heard as much engagement with the audience,” Ms. Wine said of the lively session entitled “Understanding Climate Change & Media Exposure.”

“We ended up believing that the media can change the planet.”

Ms. Wine also said that the passion of the youth whose call to action closed out the conference also was an important addition to the other sessions by a wide variety of attendees who care about climate change and other pressing environmental issues.

On Thursday morning, for example, state and local policymakers, environmentalists, concerned citizens and river stakeholders gathered to hear John Delany, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, talk about climate change “adaptation thinking” and how it relates to the management of watershed, habitats and communities

The Thursday morning presentation by Mr. Delany, a climate modeler, and the questions he received from the audience illustrated just how difficult it is for those tasked with protecting and managing water levels, flood plains, watersheds and habitats to determine how to respond to the dramatic changes created by the changes in seasonality and water levels that result from climate change.

Other speakers at the event also included keynoter Ray Wolf, a National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist, who also is the science and operations officer for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). His speech focused on “Climate Change in the Upper Mississippi River Basin,” which includes the Quad Cities.

“Most of the time with climate change, it’s the warming temperatures that get all the attention,” he told Quad Cities media prior to the conference. “With us, especially in respect to the winter, it’s the increase in precipitation. … A lot of changes we’ve seen already in the river and there are more changes to come.”

In addition to breakout sessions for those who are charged with managing the rivers and protecting habitats, the UMRC event included three environmental experts. In addition to Mr. Delany, they were: 

  • Art Cullen, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor of the Storm Lake Times, who spoke at the event’s catfish dinner Wednesday. He is the author of the book “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.” 
  • William Becker, executive director of Presidential Climate Action Project, who discussed “What Are Floods Trying To Tell Us? 

For the first time this year, the conference also included a field tour option with trips to the National Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa, and Rock Creek Marina and Eco Tourism Center outside Camanche, Iowa. 

Sponsors of the River Action’s UMRC were: Core-Vens Insurance, Corn Belt Ports, Western Illinois University, Environet, Mark W. Schwiebert Foundation for Environmental Studies, Big River Magazine, Riverside Integrated Water Solutions & Environmental Services, GRAEF, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Constellation and Waste Commission of Scott County. 

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