New Orleans’ drinking water threatened by drought-stricken Mississippi River

September 26, 2023

Officials in New Orleans are scrambling to avert a drinking water crisis as salt water from the Gulf of Mexico threatens the drought-stricken Mississippi River.

On Friday New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) signed an emergency declaration in response to the threat, as water levels have dropped low enough to make the river less resistant to mass saltwater flows north from the Gulf.

The situation is known as “saltwater intrusion,” and it’s endangering drinking water systems in and around the city of New Orleans as well as smaller municipalities farther south. 

“This goes beyond New Orleans—it is a regional problem, and we will continue working to support our neighboring parishes of Plaquemines, who have already been impacted, and St. Bernard, who may soon be affected,” Cantrell noted in her declaration.

The roughly 2,000 residents in Plaquemines Parish began relying on bottled water this summer after salt water infiltrated its drinking water systems.

The emergency declaration aims to “thoroughly prepare” officials for impending impacts by allowing for the streamlining of state and federal agencies to deploy resources, if necessary. 

Cantrell added that the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans (SWBNO) was working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to explore ways to mitigate the salt content in water entering the system, including bringing in fresh water on barges, pumping it from parishes further upriver and researching filtration methods and systems.

“The most important thing for residents at this time is to stay informed and remain calm. As we continue monitoring this situation, we will communicate all necessary information to residents as it becomes available,” said the mayor.

In his own statement, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) blamed a lack of rainfall for the threat. In normal times, the Mississippi’s downstream flow is powerful enough to stem the encroaching salt water, preventing it from moving too far inland.

“We’re trying our best to delay the onset of this saltwater wedge moving further north and bide time until hopefully Mother Nature intervenes, but also to help us get some assets and resources to offset some of that salt water,” the governor said during a news conference Friday.

PHOTO: Mississippi River off New Orleans in 2017

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