The steady push of salt water upstream in the drought-hit Mississippi River could have serious health and economic consequences across southern Louisiana, where many communities rely on the river for drinking water, irrigation and shipping.
Persistent drought in the region has dropped water levels in the Mississippi River to near-historic lows, allowing salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to creep upriver and much farther inland than normal.
Drinking water across most of the state is still considered safe at the moment, but it’s projected that salt water could reach water intake facilities in Belle Chasse by Oct. 13, St. Bernard by around Oct. 19 and facilities in New Orleans later in October. Residents of Plaquemines parish, located south of New Orleans rely on bottled drinking water after their water system was inundated this summer.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday declared the unfolding saltwater intrusion a federal emergency, freeing up funds to support state and local relief efforts. This week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked to extend an underwater barrier that would help slow the movement of seawater upstream. However, officials expect to see the “sill’ be topped in the next few weeks.
The health impacts from excess salinity in drinking water are top of mind for those in southeastern Louisiana, but experts say saltwater intrusion can also endanger crops, animal stock and infrastructure in the region.
Salty drinking water can increase blood pressure and cause a spike in sodium levels.
Stephen Murphy is an assistant professor in Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. He said that infants, pregnant woman, and those who need to monitor sodium intake are at the greatest risk.
“Members of the population who are on no-salt or low-salt diets will be susceptible because those individuals need to be extremely careful about high blood pressure,” he said.
Officials in Louisiana said millions of gallons of water are being barged in to dilute local water supplies, if needed, and reverse osmosis equipment may also be used at some treatment facilities.
Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that the Louisiana Department of Health would work with local officials to conduct municipal water testing and provide public health advice.
Murphy advised people to stock up on bottled drinking water but said there was no need to panic.
” “Just as we do during hurricane season, buy enough water to cover your needs and perhaps a bit more just in case,” said Murphy. “But you don’t need to go out and buy every pallet of water you can find.”
Still, saltwater intrusion can have other serious effects on people and animals, particularly because of its corrosive nature.
There are concerns, for instance, that seawater could corrode pipes and leach heavy metals into the water supply, said Holly Michael, a hydrogeologist at the University of Delaware and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute.
“If water of a different chemical composition is introduced into the water distribution system it can cause all kinds of issues, she explained. “Depending on what pipes are made of, saltwater intrusion could release heavy metals, it could change the chemistry in water treatment, it could corrode appliances in people’s homes.”
Agriculture in the region will likely be affected by salt water creeping upstream, particularly farmers who rely on river water for irrigation. Michael found in his own Delaware research that saltwater intrusion caused many farmers to irrigate fields using saltier than normal water. This led to the death of crops.
Low water levels in the Mississippi River, a key shipping corridor, could also affect commercial operations, exacerbating existing issues from lingering drought conditions.
Michael said the developing situation highlights how climate change and drought are affecting people’s lives and livelihoods — and how far-reaching the consequences can be.
“It’s important that people understand how fragile our systems are, especially at the coast,” she said. “We need to really think about what we’re doing to our systems and also how they’re responding to change, and then be proactive about understanding how that might affect our lives and infrastructure.”
The post Salt water creeping up Mississippi could cause health concerns and more appeared first on NBC News.