UMWA, tour, la cross, grains, shipping

Filled with life and energetic waves that dance along its banks, the Upper Mississippi River sticks to its routine of winding and bending through the heart of Minnesota to St. Louis. To make sure this vein of the Earth continues pumping through its arteries, it takes a village. 

 The Upper Mississippi Waterway Association (UMWA) attracted just that, inviting its lifeline, multiple stakeholders of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, to a special meeting and event upstream in La Crosse, Wis.  

“It’s all about developing relationships,” said Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG), one of several stakeholders who attended the kickoff of UMWA’s Columbia/Snake River Exchange Tour. “Once you develop those relationships you can learn how to collaborate together and speak as a unified voice and in this type of atmosphere that we’re in, every bit of voice that we have is super important to have at the national level.” 

Joining UMWA and WAWG were stakeholders from Shaver Transportation, Port of Lewiston, Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), Columbia River Pilots and American Cruise Lines for a membership meeting at the Hatchery in La Crosse, where the groups kept relevant river issues afloat. Specialty marine contractor J.F. Brennan sponsored the lunch and also joined in on the conversation.  

“These types of events bring the river industry together,” said Mark Binsfield, vice president of business development and co-owner of J.F. Brennan. “UMWA is a great example of an organization that can represent a number of people living and working along the waterways that are underrepresented right now and this is a really good opportunity for us on the Upper Mississippi to come together, talk about the issues we’re dealing with on a daily basis and come up with collective solutions.” 

The lunch wasn’t complete without a surprise visit from the author famous for writing a memoir of his days as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River before the Civil War. A Mark Twain impersonator took attendees back in time for a light-hearted firsthand account. That was followed by a trip back to reality, with presentations from the Columbia and Snake River stakeholders showing the diversity of the conversation. 

“I’m learning a lot about the different river systems on how you use locks and dams compared to how we do,” Hennings said. “In our system we have dams, but we use them for hydropower, and we also use our transportation through our locks as well. It’s similar here, but I’m learning how hydro isn’t as prominent on your river system and your system is a lot bigger than ours, so I’m excited to see the differences between the two.” 

At the J.F. Brennan dock, the group of around 60 stakeholders hopped aboard a barge, where they witnessed the similarities and differences of the river systems. 

“When you have so many diverse people such as those that work on the river, those that are loaders on the river, those that are receivers off the river, or provide engineering and other services, you get the perspectives,” said Gary Williams, executive director of UMWA. “Only through having a collection of those perspectives do you get rounded solutions and understand the intricacies, the issues and the needs of the Upper Mississippi.” 

UMWA leaders considered the start to their trip, which includes visits to ports in Memphis, Tenn., Vicksburg, Miss., and New Orleans, a pivotal point for an organization that is ready to make some waves in the river system.  

“UMWA has been not very active in the last few years and putting this together to bring in other industry leaders really puts UMWA on the map,” said President Jeremy Putman, recognizing the possibilities in this new stream of collaboration.  

“When you go to a meeting for a brief hour, you get a very limited engagement,” Williams said. “But having a longer day event where we’re able to spend time on a barge with a tow pushing it down the river, it gives prospective members the opportunity to learn about UMWA’s purpose or vision, as well as get an idea of the type of topics that our membership is interested in and find the commonality that they would have in being part of this organization.”