For over 25 years, McKnight has been committed to protecting and restoring the Mississippi River. The commitment was born of a recognition of the unique and widespread role the river system plays in the economic and social fabric of Minnesota and the Midwest, as well as a concern about the system’s declining health from its tributaries to its sprawling mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. The Foundation’s goal is to restore the water quality and resilience of the Mississippi River.
To achieve our goal, we focus on mitigating two major alterations of the river system:
- Agricultural runoff, most notably nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment; and
- Engineering of the river, its tributaries and their watersheds, the Midwest landscape, and the Louisiana coast, which has severely altered the basin’s natural hydrology and ability to filter and absorb pollutants.
The program supports activities that contribute to a more resilient landscape and in turn a healthier Mississippi River and Louisiana coast. We seek to influence the range of incentives and disincentives that guide decisions about what, where, and how agricultural land is used and the hydrologic function of the Mississippi River basin, including the restoration of the Louisiana coast. We seek to influence key drivers of decisions and behaviors — such as economic returns, risk, regulations, and culture — to encourage products and practices that reduce runoff and preserve wetlands. As we work to accelerate the adoption of new practices, we also seek to alter established incentives and behaviors that have led to increased runoff and degraded hydrologic function.
We are most interested in efforts that accelerate the emergence and long-term viability of new opportunities, such as market trends that link consumer interest in sustainability with farming practices that reduce impacts on the river, the adoption of soil and water-protecting crops and farming practices, growing interest in soil health, and technologies that assist with a more sustainable use of land. We also recognize the socioeconomic factors that influence land-use decisions and seek to mitigate economic and policy drivers that discourage diversified cropping systems, consolidate livestock operations, and reduce farmers’ incentives to adopt more sustainable agricultural practices.
We primarily focus on the Upper Mississippi River and its tributaries that are responsible for most of the agricultural pollution to the river system and have the most severely altered hydrology. We also support a small group of organizations conducting important environmental work in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as a few organizations that have the demonstrated capacity, history, and strategic vision to impact basin-wide issues.
Theory of Change
Portfolio of proven practices. We seek out and encourage the adoption of practices that reduce impacts to the river and restore its function. For agriculture, this includes emerging crops (e.g., Kernza TM, a perennial grain) as well as an array of traditional and emerging practices (e.g., pastured livestock, cover cropping, precision farming, and saturated buffer strips). For landscape engineering, this includes non-structural alternatives to address water quality (e.g., restored wetlands) as well as alternative approaches to agricultural drainage. Identifying a portfolio of practices and demonstrating their viability helps overcome a natural risk-aversion to new products and practices and encourages further innovation.
Enabling market and policy environment. Individuals and organizations whose decisions and behaviors impact the Mississippi River are strongly influenced by the markets and policy frameworks in which they operate. We seek to create new market opportunities and policy incentives that encourage adoption of undervalued products and practices. For agriculture, this includes supporting market opportunities where consumer demand can drive on-farm practices that reduce impacts on the river system. For landscape engineering, this includes policies that adequately value the ecosystem services of green infrastructure. In Louisiana, much of the work we support is focused on elevating the role of the communities most affected by coastal subsidence and pollution.
Decisionmaking incentives to encourage adoption at scale. The health of the Mississippi River is impacted by many day-to-day decisions by a vast number of individuals and organizations throughout the system. The decisions are often driven by personal, organizational, and cultural investment in past practices. Key influences include economic returns, risk, regulatory requirements, culture, and community. Ideally, shifts in these influences are reinforcing over time, gathering momentum as new markets mature and become more predictable, risks become better understood and managed through markets and policy, new rules become accepted as common practice, organizational cultures accept new ways of doing business, and communities come to expect practices that increase the quality and resilience of the river. This self-reinforcing system creates an "engine" for bringing changes to scale. Over time, this engine turns leading practice into common practice.
Reduce impact and build resilience of the Mississippi River system. As farming and landscape engineering decisions shift to adopting new practices at scale, the benefits of these practices also achieve sufficient scale to impact a river system as large and complex as the Mississippi. Nutrient loads are reduced, shifts in drainage practices retain and restore wetlands, and hydrologic function is restored. The cumulative impact of widespread adoption of new practices restores a river system that supports a vibrant aquatic community and serves the many ways humans use the river.
Our logic model is the practical map from our two strategies, through our program's many activities (including but not limited to grantmaking), and ultimately to the outcomes our river program strives to achieve.