Mississippi River water levels have reached historic lows for the second year in a row, leaving local residents facing a drinking water crisis.
A saltwater wedge slowly creeping upstream from the Gulf of Mexico, due to unusually low water levels in the river, could threaten municipal water supplies, possibly even New Orleans’s.
The rapid decline over the past two years is the worst since 1988, when a scorching drought engulfed much of Central America.
President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that federal disaster assistance is available for Louisiana, which is working to stop the massive influx of saltwater.
The salt threatens the drinking water supply in the southern part of the state.
Data from the USGS shows that water levels at seven meters of the river, which runs through Memphis to Missouri, are “at or below low water thresholds.”
The low water level of the Mississippi River is seen as people sit on steps that normally flow into the river in the French Quarter of New Orleans, on September 25, 2023
2020 vs. 2022: The historic river’s declining water level spells disaster for those who depend on it for their livelihood
A man walks along the shore of McKellar Lake, a remote corner of the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee, on October 19, 2022
Data from the USGS shows that seven yards of the river (indicated here by the brown dots) that runs through Memphis into Missouri, water levels are “at or below low water thresholds.”
And the problem won’t go away overnight.
Experts warned that numbers will continue to fall in the coming weeks – and that only a big rain shower will ease the worrying forecasts.
The mighty river needs at least 10 inches of rain to keep the salt at bay.
Katie Dedeaux, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, told CNN, “We need a pretty significant period of wet weather across the entire basin. It won’t happen overnight.’
The saltwater wedge has traveled nearly 15 miles upstream in just seven days, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers, who are building an underwater sill with mud that should slow the flow of saltwater.
The sill – which will raise the height of the river bottom by 25 feet – should help stop the salt’s movement. It is built by Naomi, Louisiana.
Normally, cases of drought and the need for building sills on the river occur every 10 to 12 years. But it is worrying that one is due to be built in 2023 – while the last one was only built in 2022.
Matt Roe, an Army Corps spokesman, said, “That’s the most notable thing about this year. Last year we only built sills and we will see that again this year.’
Biden’s action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief efforts, the White House said.
Additionally, the declaration will provide more equipment, resources and federal money to address saltwater intrusion.
This aerial photo shows sediment and mixed river water as a tanker moves upstream in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on September 26, 2023
Dredging work to build an underwater sill can be seen, with the city of New Orleans in the background
“I am grateful to the Biden Administration for making this request a priority and responding quickly to help the people of South Louisiana,” Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said.
For the second year in a row, saltwater has pushed further up the Mississippi, threatening drinking water in communities that rely on the river for fresh water.
Typically, the river’s powerful current keeps large amounts of saltwater from reaching too far inland, but hot and dry conditions across the country led to a drought this summer that slowed the Mississippi’s flow and lowered water levels.
This was also the hottest and third driest on record for Louisiana.
In parts of Plaquemines Parish, the southeastern corner of Louisiana that includes the last stretch of the Mississippi River before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, residents have relied on bottled water for cooking and drinking since June.
Drinking water advisories have been issued for some communities in the parish, warning people that the water is unsafe to drink, especially for people with kidney disease, high blood pressure, those on low-sodium diets, infants and pregnant women.
Now the salt water is moving further upstream and will likely reach Orleans, St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes in mid-to-late October, officials say.
Sediment-carrying pipes cross the Mississippi River, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is building an underwater sill with mud that should slow the flow of saltwater along the Mississippi River south of New Orleans
A tanker ship travels downstream near dredging operations on the Mississippi River
A saltwater wedge slowly moving upstream from the Gulf of Mexico, due to unusually low water levels in the river, could threaten municipal water supplies, possibly even New Orleans
The river serves as the main artery for exports of U.S. crops, such as corn, soybeans and other grains, heading south to the Gulf. The river was pictured last year
Due to the drought in 2022, cargo ships and other boats have been regularly moored and stranded, endangering waterborne trade and the livelihoods of workers
Edwards wrote to Biden earlier this week to ask for federal help.
In his letter, Edwards said the issue “is of such severity and magnitude” that state and local authorities can no longer resolve it alone.
Federal assistance is “necessary to save lives and protect property, public health and safety, or to reduce or avert the threat of a disaster,” the governor wrote.
While officials say they are praying for rain to help increase the speed of the drought-stricken river, they are also taking matters into their own hands: raising the height of an underwater dike used to block or slow the salt water and bringing in 15 million liters of water. of fresh water to treatment plants in affected areas.
Hydrologist Jeff Graschel with the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center told FOX Weather, “What happens is if we don’t get a lot of rain in the upper parts of the Midwest, that’s where all the flow is actually coming from.
“By the time the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet, that’s about 90% of the water flowing to part of the lower Mississippi River near New Orleans.”
The river – which flows 2,300 miles (3,750 kilometers) from its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the center of the country to the Gulf of Mexico – was also at historic lows last year in states including Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri. .
In 2012, the drought in the Great Plains – which also dramatically dropped water levels in the Mississippi – resulted in US$35 billion in losses and forced officials to close the river at least three times.