Jefferson Parish mobilizes, bracing for saltwater wedge

Published: Sep. 27, 2023 at 6:04 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Jefferson Parish officials are mobilizing efforts to confront the looming threat of the saltwater wedge advancing up the Mississippi River.

The saltwater intrusion is expected to begin impacting the parish within four weeks.

The common consensus among officials; the Mississippi River desperately needs precipitation.

“We certainly need rain in biblical proportions,” said Jefferson Parish president Cynthia Lee Sheng. “It has been a hot, hot summer and a hot year.”

The scorching summer has shattered temperature records, with Jefferson Parish experiencing 40 record-breaking high-temperature days this year, 20 of which occurred in August alone.

“We’re going to try to get through in Jefferson Parish with as little drama as possible and as smooth as possible and as operationally sound and logical as possible,” Sheng said.

Sheng pointed out that residents’ experiences will vary based on their water sources and locations within the parish.

Gretna, the only municipality in the parish providing its own water, is slated to be the first hit by the saltwater wedge on October 24. The Corps predicts that the saltwater intrusion will reach West Jefferson’s water intake on October 25 and East Jefferson’s on October 29.

As of Wed., Sept. 27, the US Army Corps of Engineers reports the wedge is a little more than five miles south of Belle Chasse, moving at about one mile per day. Water quality about 15-25 miles downstream of the toe will exceed the EPA standard of 250 ppm chloride.

Sheng says Grand Isle will not be a concern as they’ll turn on the pipes at Lafourche.

As the saltwater wedge progresses upriver, the population in need of drinkable water will increase exponentially.

“As this thing moves up the river, there’s going to be exponential growth. So, where Plaquemines is 23,000 people, and St. Bernard 23,000 people, as it turns to New Orleans - 376,000 people, and Jefferson’s 433,000 people. So I did not want them to see reports of, ‘Okay, it looks like we’re managing this,’ and then it turns at Algiers and you go from serving 65,000 people who need drinkable water to 809,000 people who need drinkable water,” Sheng said.

The parish is engaged with local grocery stores, hospitals, nursing homes, dialysis communities, hospices, and water suppliers to ensure a steady flow of bottled water. Extra storage space will be provided for stores as needed.

On the flip side, Sheng said, “This is not a hurricane where the entire Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida is trying to buy water and gas. It’s very isolated right now - four parishes in the state of Louisiana. We can do this. We will have drinkable water. I’m certain of that.”

Residents are also taking precautions, with some installing water filtration systems, while others stock up on essential supplies.

“I have a [Reverse Osmosis] water filtration system,” said Mike Greaney. “As long as the water can get pumped, I’ll be fine.”

“Probably [since] a week ago it’s been pretty much a hassle as it relates to lines waiting for water, but it appears now that there is an excess of water and the lines are not as long,” Troy Poplous said.

“I’m not hoarding water, but I am keeping a few gallons on hand just in case,” Antoinette Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson said she is concerned about appliances, adding that would not be a cheap fix.


TIMELINE: Saltwater wedge could reach New Orleans by late October

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President Sheng expects the underwater sill to slow the saltwater’s advance by 10-14 days, and many parishes are exploring options to barge in water from upstream.

“We produce 70 million gallons a day and so if an osmosis machine only is able to produce 320,000 gallons a day... these are not solutions that are available to us,” Sheng said.

Sheng is actively collaborating with various organizations, including the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors’ Association, the Louisiana Department of Health, and GOHSEP. Meetings with the homebuilder’s association, the Louisiana Restaurant Association, and faith-based and community partners are also in the pipeline as the community prepares to face this challenge head-on.

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