Contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers work on raising a sill in the Mississippi River near Alliance to reduce the flow of saltwater upriver. (USACE photo)
President Joe Biden has approved Gov. John Bel Edwards’ request for an emergency declaration in response to saltwater intrusion on the lower Mississippi River, the governor’s office announced Wednesday. A far reaching drought throughout the upper Mississippi River Valley has slowed its flow to the point where saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico, which is more dense than freshwater, is making its way upstream.
Drinking water supplies are being compromised along the way, with residents in lower Plaquemines Parish already reliant on bottled water. Officials are preparing more populated areas in St. Bernard, Orleans and Jefferson parishes for likely impacts.
The wedge of salt water is expected to reach the uppermost Plaquemines city, Belle Chasse, with more than 10,000 residents, by mid-October. New Orleans and its upriver suburbs are expecting arrival later in the month.
“I’m grateful to the Biden administration for making this request a priority and responding quickly to help the people of South Louisiana,” Edwards said a statement. “Efforts to mitigate the impact of the saltwater intrusion are currently underway and other projects are being considered based on the projections being received from the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
“This 90-day approval of our Emergency Declaration will help our state and local partners with the costs of any mitigation efforts and protective measures. As this event unfolds, we will continue to analyze the emergency efforts and impacts to determine if further requests will be necessary.”
Biden’s declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support all disaster relief efforts, ranging from prevention to public health impacts.
The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) continues to work with leadership in the impacted areas, along with state and federal partners, on response and preparation.
Reverse osmosis equipment has been moved down to lower Plaquemines to help desalinate the water supply for smaller communities. To dilute drinking water supplies further upstream, the Corps of Engineers plans to carry up to 36 million gallons a day on barges to supplement river intakes at treatment systems from Belle Chasse to Gretna.
Another solution under consideration for the east bank of New Orleans is running a water line from Jefferson Parish upriver to provide additional freshwater.
Drinking saltwater presents health risks to people with high blood pressure and women late in their pregnancies who are more susceptible to hypertension. High salinity can also corrode metal components of plumbing. Water systems aren’t planning to shut off their supplies to the public because to do so would create sanitation issues and raise fire risk.
The state is tracking progress of the saltwater in the river at emergency.la.gov, which also offers safety and health guidance for residents.
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