Louisiana officials are racing against time to address a pressing crisis as saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico threatens the drinking water supplies of New Orleans and its surrounding areas. This looming threat arises from unusually low water levels in the drought-stricken Mississippi River.
Emergency Declaration Amidst Saltwater Intrusion Concerns
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell took swift action by signing an emergency declaration on Friday in response to mounting worries about saltwater encroaching upstream, potentially jeopardizing the availability of safe drinking water in the near future.
Saltwater Intrusion Highlights Climate Change Challenges
This situation underscores not only the immediate dangers of saltwater intrusion for communities in southeastern Louisiana but also raises broader concerns about climate change and the accessibility of clean drinking water in regions susceptible to drought.
Impact on a Vast Population
Stephen Murphy, an assistant professor at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, estimates that nearly 1 million people residing in the greater New Orleans metropolitan area could be profoundly affected if the water levels in the Mississippi River continue to remain critically low.
Timeline of Saltwater Threat
While forecasts may evolve, it is currently projected that briny water could reach water intake facilities in Belle Chasse by October 13, with facilities in New Orleans facing potential impacts later in October.
Saltwater’s Health Risks
Already, during the summer, around 2,000 residents in Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, had to rely on bottled water due to saltwater infiltrating the area’s water systems. Excess salinity in drinking water can lead to elevated sodium levels in the body, increasing blood pressure and posing health risks to the affected population.
Drought’s Impact on the Mississippi River
Prolonged drought conditions have kept the Mississippi River at notably low levels and substantially weakened its flow, a phenomenon exacerbated by the region’s unique topography. The river’s mouth sits significantly below sea level, allowing Gulf of Mexico saltwater to naturally creep inland. Saltwater, denser than fresh water, flows beneath the fresh river water along the riverbed.
Reduced Flow and Encroaching Saltwater
Under normal circumstances, the river’s downstream flow is robust enough to deter the encroachment of saltwater, preventing it from advancing too far inland. However, severe drought conditions have caused water levels in the Mississippi to plummet to some of the lowest levels in recent decades. As a result, the river’s flow rate is no longer adequate to combat the saltwater wedge.
Critical Threshold for Saltwater Intrusion
Scientists have identified saltwater intrusion as a significant issue in the Lower Mississippi River region when the river’s flow falls below 300,000 cubic feet per second. As of last week, the flow stood at just 148,000 cubic feet per second.
Attributing the Issue to Drought
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards has attributed the river’s current challenges to a lack of precipitation, highlighting that “the saltwater intrusion [is advancing] further up the river despite efforts to mitigate the problems by the Army Corps of Engineers.”
Efforts to Delay Saltwater Intrusion
To address the imminent threat, the Army Corps is expanding an underwater barrier initially constructed in July. This barrier, known as a sill, operates similarly to an underwater levee. However, given ongoing dry conditions, there are concerns that the sill may be overtopped once again.
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Collaborative Monitoring and Water Supply Dilution
State officials have committed to collaborating with parishes to closely monitor water supplies and assess any changes. Additionally, the Army Corps is prepared to bring in millions of gallons of water to dilute local water supplies if necessary.
The Bigger Picture: Climate Change and Potable Water
This drinking water crisis in the region underscores the broader challenge of drought and the accessibility of potable water in a world grappling with the impacts of climate change. Murphy emphasizes the need to address climate-related challenges in our communities, especially as extreme weather events become increasingly common.