An aerial view of New Orleans is seen from a drone over the Mississippi River on April 1, 2023 in New Orleans, La.
Ricky Carioti | The Washington Post | Getty Images
President Joe Biden declared a federal emergency on Wednesday over a saltwater intrusion in the Mississippi River that is threatening New Orleans’ water infrastructure.
A lack of rainfall has led to lower freshwater levels in the Mississippi River, allowing the denser layer of saltwater to rise upstream over the past two months.
Usually the power of the river flows together with an underwater sill to keep the salt water at bay. But on Monday, salt water flooded the sill and entered the drinking water of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana.
That same day, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards sent a request to Biden to declare the situation a federal emergency so the state could draw on funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Biden’s approval on Wednesday comes as officials scramble to prevent saltwater from infiltrating more neighborhoods along the Mississippi Valley, which could leave many residents without drinking water.
An image of the Mississippi River’s underwater sill built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in July, which the Sewage and Water Board used in a presentation to the New Orleans City Council on September 27.
Photo courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District
As it stands now, drinking water in New Orleans is “safe,” according to the Sewage and Water Board of New Orleans, or SWBNO. The US Army Corps of Engineers predicts that two New Orleans water treatment plants will be affected by the end of October: the Algiers Water Treatment Plant on October 22 and the Carrollton Water Treatment Plant on October 28.
Meanwhile, New Orleans residents are wondering how much longer they will have access to drinking water. Some have fled in panic to stores to clear the shelves of single-use water bottles, although government officials have urged consumers to remain calm and assure them there will be no shortage of water bottles.
“When you go to the grocery stores, the waterways are wiped out,” said Jesse Keenan, a professor of real estate and urban planning at Tulane University.
Mia Miller, a resident of New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood, admits to picking up a few extra gallons of bottled water herself: “You don’t want to be caught unawares or be the person who said, ‘Oh, this is ‘won’t be a problem.” .'”
But for Miller, like many New Orleanians, preparing for disaster is just a day in the life. Miller is more concerned that the city’s infrastructure may not be equipped to handle this intrusion.
New Orleans City Councilman Joseph Giarrusso said the saltwater surge could lead to loss of adequate water access for residents, especially those in poorer neighborhoods, hospitals and dialysis centers, hotels, local businesses and more.
“What I’m more concerned about is that if we get to the worst case scenario, how long will this affect people, especially the poor people and the businesses that are trying to find their way? How do they deal with everything? of these costs, and another unexpected expense?” Giarrusso said.
Solutions under consideration
At a New Orleans City Council meeting on Wednesday, council members, SWBNO and Department of Homeland Security officials discussed possible response strategies.
One method would be to use ships to import vast quantities of fresh water to dilute the water entering the treatment plants so that it can be used for bathing and other non-potable applications.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also been working to build the underwater sill higher to prevent the saltwater from flowing further upstream.
Another proposal is the construction of a pipeline, which would bring fresh water from further up the river to the affected areas downstream. The SWBNO said at the meeting that the estimated cost of the pipeline is $100 million to $250 million, which would require FEMA funding, although there is no set timeline for when it could be completed.
“They say they can get this thing built in 30 days, and that’s when we should start feeling the effects of saltwater intrusion,” said Council Member Lesli Harris. “Ensuring that there is a certain date when construction starts is something I would like information about.”
The saltwater threat in New Orleans is not unprecedented. A similar breach occurred in 1988, although it took only a few days for rainfall to return the Mississippi River to normal. In more recent years, salt water has moved higher upstream, but not to the extent of the past week.
Some New Orleanians wonder why the city is always on the defensive, despite warning signs of saltwater intrusion in recent years.
“The hardest part about running the city is you don’t want to over-prioritize resources on something that isn’t already a problem,” said Council Member Giarrusso. “But there is always deferred maintenance and now we are dealing with climate change. We are seeing more and more stories of salt water intrusion in other places. And so it is time to move on to an emergency plan.”
“We always play the reaction game,” says Bywater’s Miller. “You can’t just put a Band-Aid on every time something happens.”
Stephen Murphy, director of Tulane University’s Disaster Management Program, agreed: “We really need to think about how we’re going to handle this going forward because we can’t just continue this process of responding. next time for this.”
This time the situation appears to be different than in 1988. Forecasts of low rainfall in the area do not bode well for the river’s recovery. According to Tulane University’s Murphy, it will take 10 inches of rain, which could take months, to return the river to normal freshwater levels.
“Mother Nature moves at a different pace. She doesn’t often play by our playbook,” Murphy says.
The connection with climate change
The lack of rainfall in New Orleans correlates with predictions about the changing climate.
“The kinds of patterns we’re seeing in our region and across the Mississippi Valley are at least consistent with predictions that we’re going to see increasing frequency and intensity of climate change-driven events,” said Josh Lewis . , Schwartz Professor of River and Coastal Studies at Tulane University.
This past week, nine-year-old Drew Murphy, who lives in New Orleans, was left wondering about the future of his water supply. Luckily, his father is Stephen Murphy, Tulane’s emergency management expert, and can help talk through it.
Murphy recalled a recent conversation with his son: “He said, ‘We’ve got to figure out a way so this doesn’t happen again.’ I’m like, ‘Bingo, buddy.'”