St. Bernard Parish prepares for worst impacts of saltwater wedge

Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 11:22 PM CDT
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CHALMETTE, La. (WVUE) - The saltwater wedge moving up the Mississippi River, at a rate of around 1.5 miles per day, already has impacted the drinking water in Plaquemines Parish Empire Bridge to Venice.

Parishes further up the river have only a few weeks to make a multimillion-gallon plan to protect their own water supplies.

“We don’t think that we are going to get the worst of the worst, but we still have to prepare for that,” St. Bernard Parish president Guy McInnis said Tuesday (Sept. 19). “Right now, the worst, when you’re looking at Boothville, they have 300 milligrams per liter. If that ends up getting up here, yeah, it would be significant.”

The parish can deliver water with some salt in it. The EPA caps safe salt levels in drinking water at 250 milligrams per liter.

St. Bernard Parish is planning several ways to keep the faucets running:

  • Having the Army Corps of Engineers barge in 1 million gallons of fresh water from upriver to mix with the parish water and dilute the salt level;
  • Filtering out the salt through a machine in a process called reverse osmosis;
  • Pumping in millions of gallons of fresh water from Orleans Parish, through a water line near Jackson Barracks

“Hopefully, we don’t have to tap into New Orleans’ water system,” said Parish councilman Fred Everhardt. “Basically, it’s up to Mother Nature when she’s going to bring some rain up north.”

Orleans Parish is prepared to assist. The Sewerage and Water Board told Fox 8, “We stand ready to help out neighboring parishes with their alternative water supplies in any way we can, because public health and safety is our top priority.”

McInnis says his jurisdiction uses nine million gallons of water a day. Orleans could deliver around six million gallons per day, but the St. Bernard system can only handle two million gallons a day. Anything more and its pumping systems could burst from the pressure.

So, McInnis plans to use a little of each method and hope it goes a long way.

“The Corps will barge water in and transfer the water from the barge to our reservoir, which is a big barge,” McInnis said. “And then we will take that water and bring it to our system.”

Fox 8 forecast models suggest rain could fall upriver near Memphis in the Arkansas and Missouri River Basins as early as next week. That rain could take up to a month to travel downriver.

“They’re going to continue to monitor the (river) levels, so we may not have to do all this,” Everhardt said. “It may not be a big issue. But it depends on Mother Nature and when she’s going to give us rain, so we can back up that saltwater and put it in the Gulf where it belongs.”

Parish leaders say the rain could be a big help as the predicted intrusion into St. Bernard draws near.

“We’re a few weeks out from Oct. 8, and remember that’s the beginning,” McInnis said. “We don’t think we’re going to have to shut our water system off or that we’re going to be over that 250 (milligrams per liter) on the 8th,” McInnis said.

“It’s going to be a few days. Like I said, in the beginning, we are preparing for the worst. But instead of praying for the best, we’re going to pray for rain.”

The parish says it’s a good idea to start conserving water and even if stores are out of cases of bottled water, more are coming.

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