The persistent push of saltwater upstream in the drought-stricken Mississippi River poses significant health and economic risks across southern Louisiana, where communities heavily rely on the river for drinking water, irrigation, and shipping.
Prolonged drought conditions in the region have driven water levels in the Mississippi River to near-historic lows, allowing saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico to advance upriver much farther than usual.
While drinking water in most areas of the state remains safe for now, projections indicate that saltwater intrusion could reach water intake facilities in Belle Chasse by October 13, St. Bernard around October 19, and New Orleans later in October. Residents in Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, have already resorted to using bottled water since the summer due to the inundation of the local water system.
To address the escalating crisis, President Joe Biden declared the saltwater intrusion a federal emergency, releasing funds to support state and local relief efforts. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is actively working to expand an underwater barrier to slow the seawater’s upstream movement. However, officials anticipate that the barrier will be overtopped again in the coming weeks.
Health concerns stemming from excess salinity in drinking water are a primary focus in southeastern Louisiana. Saltwater intrusion can also threaten crops, livestock, and infrastructure in the region.
High salt levels in drinking water can lead to unsafe levels of sodium in the human body, elevating blood pressure. Vulnerable populations include infants, pregnant women, and individuals already monitoring their sodium intake.
Millions of gallons of water are being transported by barge to dilute local water supplies in Louisiana if necessary, and reverse osmosis equipment may be employed at some treatment facilities.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards announced that the Louisiana Department of Health will collaborate with parish officials to test municipal drinking water and issue public health guidance.
Experts recommend that people prepare by stocking up on bottled water but emphasize that there’s no need to panic. They liken the situation to hurricane preparedness, suggesting that individuals purchase what they need and a little extra.
Aside from health risks, saltwater intrusion can have detrimental effects on infrastructure and ecosystems. Concerns include the corrosion of pipes and the release of heavy metals into the water supply.
Agriculture in the region, particularly farmers reliant on river water for irrigation, is expected to be impacted by the encroaching saltwater. Research has shown that saltwater intrusion often causes farmers to unknowingly irrigate their fields with saltier-than-normal water, leading to crop damage.
Low water levels in the Mississippi River, a vital shipping corridor, could further disrupt commercial operations, compounding existing issues resulting from ongoing drought conditions.
This unfolding situation underscores how climate change and drought are affecting communities and livelihoods, revealing the far-reaching consequences of these environmental challenges. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the fragility of coastal systems and proactively addressing their response to change for the benefit of lives and infrastructure.