Saltwater wedge retreats slightly, Orleans leaders still preparing for impacts

Published: Oct. 10, 2023 at 7:15 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Thanks to a little rain and increased river flow, the saltwater wedge creeping upstream from the Gulf has retreated nearly five miles.

Orleans leaders said they hope impacts will remain minimal for the parish. The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans is still moving forward with gathering bids and fine-tuning mitigation measures for the east and west banks.

“If we had to pull the trigger on an emergency procurement within a week, we would still have well more than 30 days if there was an impact, given the current timeline,” said Steve Nelson, deputy superintendent of the Sewerage and Water Board. “Nov. 23 is the west bank timeline and then our east bank locations are about a week, week-and-a-half after that.”

The west bank plant treats about 15 million gallons of water per day. The Sewerage and Water Board says the plan is to install a cofferdam, an enclosure around the intake point. A spud barge will sit in the river. The barge will have pumps that can move water from the Army Corps of Engineers barge holding water from upstream, into the cofferdam, mix it, and run it into the intake.

“If we do see elevated chloride levels, the Corps can provide enough water for us to be able to use nothing but water barged in from upstream,” Nelson said.

On the east bank, the Carrollton Plant treats about 150 million gallons per day. The plan is to build a pipeline 10-12 miles upstream, near Kenner.

“We do have plans in place and we are working on permits with the Corps,” Nelson said. “That has not changed. We’re also working on rights of entry, to ensure that if we do need to execute this, the private property owners are consulted and we have those agreements in place.”

Over the last several days, some have questioned why it appears that Orleans Parish is behind Jefferson Parish when it comes to mitigating the saltwater wedge. Orleans Parish officials say they are taking a different approach.

“It’s a large number of pumps and pipes and there is just not enough geographical space on the levee, as well as that amount of pipe,” Nelson said. “We would have needed hundreds of miles of that lay-flat pipe. A single 48-inch conduit is really the best option for us from an engineering standpoint.”

Although leaders agree it is important to take a regional approach, some disagree on what the long-term solution should be.

Ron Spooner, interim general superintendent of the Sewerage and Water Board, said, “You’re pretty much down to desalination, in order to have an effective long-term solution.”

New Orleans City Council vice president Helena Moreno said, “Putting in place a large desalination unit, versus reverse osmosis at Sewerage and Water Board, from what I understand, the amount of power generation that would be necessary and the carbon footprint would not be most viable for us.”

Currently, Sewerage and Water Board customers will not experience a rate increase. The board says a long-term solution could require an increase to infrastructure funding.

“Unless we have a larger, national, holistic solution in addition to what we can do locally, then we will have to continue to beg Congress for money to move our pipe,” said New Orleans City Council president J.P. Morrell.

The Sewerage and Water Board continues to test water daily and will monitor any corrosion impacts the saltwater wedge might cause. The Army Corps of Engineers will provide another update Thursday on the saltwater wedge timeline.

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