Sep 28, 2023 - News

Louisiana saltwater intrusion declared a federal emergency

Estimated timeline for saltwater intrusion into the New Orleans metro area
Data: GOHSEP; Map: Axios Visuals

Saltwater intrusion in southeast Louisiana is officially a federal emergency.

Why it matters: President Biden signed a declaration Wednesday unlocking additional federal support as local officials look to thwart the threat of salt entering the drinking water supply in metro New Orleans.

Catch up quick: Because of the drought across the Mississippi River Valley, salt water is creeping upriver, where many communities, including New Orleans, draw their drinking water.

  • The salt water on Wednesday was just south of Belle Chasse, according to Col. Cullen Jones of Army Corps of Engineers.
  • The latest forecast calls for it to reach New Orleans around Oct. 22. The water in Orleans and Jefferson parishes is safe to drink until then.
  • Once the salt is here, it is expected to stick around for weeks to months, depending on rainfall.

Threat level: People and animals can't drink water with high salt levels.

The big picture: The current mitigation efforts – barging in fresh water and using reverse osmosis desalination systems – will not be enough to keep salt out of drinking water in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, leaders said Wednesday.

  • They said they're looking for permanent solutions with regional benefits.
  • Those solutions will come at a cost, with a federal ask between $100 million and $250 million or more. But securing funding shouldn't be a problem, says Collin Arnold, the director of the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

What's happening: A spate of public meetings Wednesday signaled an ongoing marshaling of forces across metro New Orleans.

In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in her weekly press conference that there are no plans to turn off municipal water.

  • She also said local officials do not plan to limit industrial use of the river.
  • In a Public Works Committee meeting, officials said work is underway on communication and distribution plans to ensure vulnerable communities, including the elderly and unhoused, have access to water updates and any bottled water made available.
  • "We're in recon mode," said interim general superintendent of SWBNO Ron Spooner during the Public Works meeting, describing the various solutions local officials are considering. "Piping is one option."

The piping plan calls for constructing 10 to 12 miles of piping to draw water from further north to supply the east banks of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.

  • "Barging and blending and reverse osmosis aren't going to work" for the Carrollton and East Jefferson water plants, which use the most water locally, Arnold said.
  • "This piping will be temporary, but with some effort we can make this permanent," Arnold added, noting the chance of future saltwater emergencies.
  • With the federal emergency approval, construction could begin within a week, Arnold said.

Yes, but: Barging in water and reverse osmosis could work for smaller plants, like in Algiers and Gretna, leaders say.

In Jefferson Parish, President Cynthia Lee Sheng said she is focusing on getting retailers to exponentially increase bottled water supplies while she works with officials to explore big-picture solutions.

  • None of the three water plants in Jefferson Parish have desalination systems, says Mark Drewes, the director of the parish's Public Works Department.

Like New Orleans, Jefferson Parish is testing water for salinity daily, and it won't turn off the water if the salt arrives, with water director Sidney Bazley citing the need for fire protection.

Construction equipment is seen on the surface of the Mississippi River.
Construction on an underwater levee, called a "sill," began again Sunday as the Army Corps of Engineers tries to slow salt water heading toward New Orleans. Photo via the Army Corps of Engineers

Meanwhile: The Army Corps of Engineers began work Sunday to bolster the sill, an underwater levee at river mile 63.8.

  • The reinforcements are expected to take about 10 days to complete, and they are estimated to slow the intrusion by another 10 to 15 days.
  • All forecasts issued by the Army Corps account for the sill construction.

What's next: Leaders in both parishes acknowledged the uncertainty of the situation, noting it's unclear how much salt will enter the water systems, how long it will stay and what it will do to pipes, appliances and industrial equipment.


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