TIMELINE: Saltwater wedge could reach New Orleans by late October
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Louisiana faces a threat not seen since the late 1980s.
The ongoing drought affecting the midwestern and southern regions of the United States has led to alarmingly low water levels in the Mississippi River. The situation has resulted in the intrusion of saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico into the river in southeast Louisiana, posing a potential threat to the drinking water supply for thousands of residents in the coming weeks.
To address the situation, the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness held a press conference Friday at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.
Governor Edwards says the historic low river levels are expected to persist for several weeks. He will be asking for an emergency declaration from the federal government to take precautions and to be eligible for reimbursements.
As the salt water continues its journey upriver, it could affect the drinking water for an additional 20,000 people in Belle Chasse. Subsequently, there is a risk that the salt water may reach the drinking water intake for the Algiers community in New Orleans, located across the river from the French Quarter.
With no significant rainfall expected in the foreseeable future, experts warn that the saltwater intrusion could reach parts of New Orleans by late October. Mayor LaToya Cantrell on Friday signed an emergency declaration in preparation for the impacts. She says her administration is monitoring more than 50,000 lead pipes across the city.
Commander Cullen Jones with the Army Corps of Engineers laid out a timeline for potential impacts:
- Belle Chasse - Oct. 13
- St. Bernard - Oct. 19
- Algiers - Oct. 22
- Gretna - Oct. 24
- W. Jefferson - Oct. 25
- Carrollton - Oct. 28
- E. Jefferson - Oct. 29
The governor says officials will be launching a centralized website for information.
The Corps of Engineers say they are working to install another augmented sill in the river. The work will begin Sunday (Sept. 24) and is expected to take over 20 days. The plan is to increase the height of the sill to 25 feet and augment a portion of the sill so ships can still pass through.
Corp officials say the increase in height could delay the saltwater intrusion by 10-15 days, but without significant rainfall in the Ohio River Valley, there’s a chance the salt water will once again topple the sill.
Additionally, the Corps is barging in 15 million gallons of freshwater. The barge will drop off the water, turn around, and refill as soon as possible, as needed.
Bottled water has been ordered by the governor’s office. Gov. Edwards says since this is not a nationwide crisis, there is no need to buy large amounts of water. He did say this is a crisis with an open end.
The encroachment of salt water raises concerns about health and infrastructure. High concentrations of salt in drinking water can lead to increased blood pressure in individuals and corrosion of water infrastructure.
Dr. Farshid Yazdi says if you have normal kidney function, your body should do a good job getting rid of excess salt, however, if you suffer from late-stage kidney, liver, or heart disease, there are increased risks.
“Pay attention to whatever local news source might give you information about boil advisories. This is similar to those in that you want to make sure if the water is unsafe for you because you have these health problems, kidney failure, heart failure, or liver failure to avoid drinking that extra water because you’re going to get the extra salt load,” Dr. Yazdi says.
The situation has already impacted communities south of New Orleans in Lower Plaquemines Parish, stretching from Empire Bridge to Venice. Approximately 2,000 residents in these areas are unable to use their tap water, and local schools have experienced water outages.
In Plaquemines Parish, residents have been battling a compromised drinking water supply since early Summer. Elected officials say now is the time to conserve water.
Citrus farmers who use irrigation water from an intake in Belle Chasse have little hope for what’s to come.
“No preparation can be done,” said Kim Dillon, manager of Becnel’s Farms. “I’m anticipating our crops to not do well at all. I don’t expect them to sustain.”
Councilman Chris Schulz says the parish is waiting for more reverse osmosis machines to filter out contaminated river water while they hope for a more permanent solution.
“We are looking into a grant to get another water plant between Belle Chasse and Sulphur. We are also working on permanent reverse osmosis equipment to filter out the salt if this happens again,” Schulz said. “The equipment is specialized. It takes time to get here. That’s why we are working on long-term solutions where, in the future, hopefully, this won’t be as serious of an issue.”
Other temporary solutions like bussing and barging in water are being considered. Thousands in Lower Plaquemines are already suffering from the effects of salt water.
“People are starting to have rashes on their skin,” Councilman Mitch Jurisich Jr. said. “You can’t drink it. If you bathe in it, you don’t feel clean.”
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