School districts from Plaquemines to Jefferson prepare for impacts from the saltwater wedge

Published: Sep. 25, 2023 at 8:03 PM CDT
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BELLE CHASSE, La. (WVUE) - Belle Chasse schools are preparing for impacts from the salt water creeping up the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Downriver communities in Plaquemines Parish have already been dealing with it.

“Where the road begins in Boothville-Venice, it’s Mile 1, where we already started this work,” said Shelley Ritz, interim superintendent of the Plaquemines Parish School District. “The first day of school, we already had bottles of water for the students and the staff.”

According to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projections, the saltwater intrusion could reach Belle Chasse by Oct. 13, so schools in that community are preparing to protect students and school staffers.

“The schools have already begun ordering their water for the students and also for after-school activities at the high school and middle school levels,” Ritz said. “Our food service director has already assured that we’re going to have the gallons of water needed for all the students for their food, for their lunches and breakfast.”

No menu modifications are planned, but Ritz said the need to purchase large quantities of bottled water means extra expenses for the school district.

“It’s a burden,” Ritz said.

The saltwater intrusion is projected to reach St. Bernard Parish by Oct. 19.

“We are a little worried about the water situation here. We’ve been filling up water in jugs,” St. Bernard resident Rachel Milam said. “We actually had to go to another town to get our water to make sure that we’ve got everything we need.”

St. Bernard Parish Public Schools superintendent Doris Voitier said in a statement, “We have purchased and will continue to purchase bottled water as needed, and we’ve revised our food menu accordingly. At this time, we do not have plans to transition to remote instruction, but we are capable and prepared to do so if it becomes a necessity.”

Milam said she was happy to hear that.

“I am encouraged to hear that they’re doing that,” she said. “We make sure that our daughter goes to school with her own water, in her water bottle, every single day. So, that’s what we’re going to continue to do, make sure that both of our kids have what they need.”

Ritz said the saltwater incursion is causing other concerns for the Plaquemines school system.

“Our company that manages our boiler system, as well as our chillers, they’re hiring a third party right now,” she said. “They’re going to come and measure our tubing and they’re working on putting an anti-corrosion additive to our actual systems to help prevent any corrosion. So, yes, there is a lot of concern right now, with regards to boilers and chillers.”

The saltwater wedge is expected to eventually reach Orleans and Jefferson parishes before the end of October.

Kaela Lewis, a spokesperson for the Jefferson Parish School System, said in a statement, “We are working closely with state and local officials to ensure we are prepared, and we will communicate with our stakeholders about this issue as additional information arises.”

NOLA Public Schools also says its operations team is collaborating with the City of New Orleans’ Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to ensure a coordinated response.

“NOLA-PS does not currently plan to acquire bottled water at the district level,” the district said in a statement. “The decision to purchase bottled water will be made at the discretion of individual schools.

“We are collaborating with our child nutrition team to adapt meal preparation and service for our students. Detailed guidance will be provided to schools, especially those using outside vendors for food services, to ensure that meals are prepared safely. As of now, there are no district-wide plans to transition to virtual learning. In the event of facility issues arising from saltwater intrusion, we will address them on a case-by-case basis, ensuring the safety and well-being of our students and staff.”

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