Along the Mississippi, a 'Serious Situation'

Saltwater intrusion could mean salt water for close to 1M people in Louisiana
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 26, 2023 2:35 PM CDT
1M Americans May Soon Have Salt Water in Water Supply
Mostly empty shelves of bottled water at Fremin's Food Market in Port Sulphur, in Plaquemines Parish, La., as concerns grow over drinking water due to salt water intrusion moving up the nearby Mississippi River on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.   (Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP)

A summer of high heat and low rainfall has created a serious risk to New Orleans' drinking water. In the coming weeks, water levels on the Mississippi River are expected to reach historic lows for the second year in a row. That means salt water flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico, typically impeded by the river's flow, is likely to reach water treatment plants in New Orleans and in smaller municipalities to the south by mid- to late October, per NBC News and the New York Times. "This is a serious situation," Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday, announcing he was requesting a federal emergency declaration for Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard parishes. The city of New Orleans has already issued an emergency declaration.

Some 2,000 residents in Plaquemines Parish have been under drinking advisories since June, per NBC and the Times. As the problem expands, close to 1 million people in the region could be affected, per NBC. "Unfortunately, we just haven't had the relief from the dry conditions that we need," Edwards said, per CNN, adding officials "don't believe that there is sufficient precipitation in the near term anywhere along the Mississippi River to materially change the conditions for the better." His office said Monday that "in some areas, the increased salinity from the saltwater intrusion is forecast to exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's ... maximum standard of 250mg/L, impacting public water systems and introducing the risk of corrosion to water distribution systems, machinery, and appliances."

But there are mitigation efforts underway. The US Army Corps of Engineers is working to add 25 feet of height to an underwater levee built in July to block the denser salt water's progression. The work will take 24 days and delay saltwater intrusion by 10 to 15 days, according to Army Col. Cullen Jones. Once intrusion occurs, the corps plans to barge 36 million gallons of fresh water daily to water treatment facilities along the lower Mississippi to "create a mixture safe for treatment," per CNN. Bottled water will also be delivered to affected areas. "There is not a shortage of bottled water around the state or around the country, and our businesses are going to be able to bring in water as it's needed," Edwards said, urging residents not to overstock. (More Louisiana stories.)

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