Mississippi River Saltwater Intrusion Slower Than Expected, Say Officials

Officials said Thursday that a saltwater wedge in the Mississippi River is moving toward New Orleans much more slowly than they had thought. The Army Corps of Engineers used to say that saltwater could pollute the water supply in New Orleans in about three weeks. This hasn’t happened in 35 years. The new prediction says that the saltwater may not reach New Orleans until late November.

At a press conference on Thursday, Col. Cullen Jones, the New Orleans district commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said that the saltwater’s “toe,” or leading edge, has been still since September 24. On the same day, work began to increase the size of an underwater sill that had been built in July to make an artificial basin to stop saltwater from coming upriver.

Jones also said that the slowdown was because flows in September were better than expected and because an updated forecast for the next 28 days showed that it would rain more in October.

Collin Arnold, Director of the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said at the press conference, “Our team has been working hard around the clock to come up with plans for safe, clean drinking water in case saltwater gets into the treatment facilities in New Orleans.” “This new estimate is good news for everyone, but our job in emergency management is to be ready for the worst.”

Low water levels in the Mississippi River have never been seen before because of drought, sinking land, rising seas, and changes that people have made to the river. This has let saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico move up the river and into local water sources.

Councilman Mitch Jurisch is one of 4,000 people in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, who have had to deal with high chloride levels in their water for months. The area is where the river is at its lowest point before it flows into the Gulf of Mexico. “On June 19, we heard that the chloride level had gone from about 250 parts per million to something like 700 parts per million overnight. “You know, it caused panic,” Jurisch told ABC News.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that the amount of chloride in drinking water, which gives it a salty taste, should stay below 250 parts per million.

These rules are called “secondary drinking water regulations,” and they apply to contaminants, like chloride, that can have cosmetic effects, like changing the color of your skin or teeth, or aesthetic effects, like changing the way the water tastes, smells or looks. The EPA suggests that water systems follow these standards, but it does not force them to do so. On the other hand, the EPA says that laws can be used to enforce regulations for primary contaminants that pose a known health risk.

Mississippi River Saltwater Intrusion Slower Than Expected, Say Officials

“Most people don’t understand how important water is to us. But when you see it close schools and businesses and change people’s lives, it’s hard to ignore,” Jurisch said. Casey Tingle, director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, told ABC News, “Unfortunately, these flows have been low enough in the last two years that the Gulf of Mexico has started to creep into the state.”

In a statement, a spokesman for the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans (SWNBO) said, “New Orleans’ water treatment plant is the biggest problem in the region because of how big it is.” The SWNBO cleans up to 165 million gallons of water every day on average and serves nearly 400,000 residents and millions of visitors to the city’s historic neighborhoods like the French Quarter, the statement said.

The statement said that the city plans to build a pipeline that would pump fresh water from about 12 miles upstream. The SWNBO is also working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to bring fresh water from upstream by barge to the smaller intakes on the Westbank of New Orleans.

“In both cases, fresh water will be added to the river near the intakes to dilute the salty water for treatment and keep chloride levels below 250 parts per million,” the statement said. Back in Plaquemines Parish, President Keith Hinkley wants to add permanent reverse osmosis devices, which he says can cost up to $5 million each, to the water treatment plants there.

“The goal is that if this happens in the future, the people in the community won’t even know about it. It won’t bother them. They might hear that salt is getting into the river again, but we’re taking care of it. Hinkley said, “We’re ahead of it and have everything under control.” Last week, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards asked President Joe Biden to declare a federal emergency because salt water was getting into the Mississippi River.

The Louisiana Department of Health says that sodium and chloride advisories are in place for three water systems in Louisiana: two in Plaquemines Parish and one in St. Mary Parish.

The EPA does not classify sodium as a primary or secondary contaminant, but the Louisiana Department of Health recommends that people on dialysis for kidney disease or low-sodium diets check with their doctors about the levels of chloride and sodium in their drinking water.

The department says that pregnant women shouldn’t drink water with more than 250 parts per million of chloride and that it shouldn’t be mixed with baby formula.

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