Saltwater intrusion threatens drinking water

Published: Aug. 8, 2012 at 2:15 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 22, 2012 at 2:20 AM CDT
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A map locating water intake points for Plaquemines Parish (Courtesy: Plaq. Parish Govt.)
A map locating water intake points for Plaquemines Parish (Courtesy: Plaq. Parish Govt.)

Plaquemines Parish, La. - Because the Mississippi River is so low, flow rates are way down, allowing saltwater from the Gulf to creep upstream.  Now that saltwater intrusion threatens intake systems and possibly even the drinking water supplies in Plaquemines Parish.

"The levels continue to go up. They are not at a dangerous level. You're just going to taste a little bit of salt in the water right now," says Parish President Billy Nungesser.

Parish leaders say testing at the East and West Pointe à la Hache intake centers shows high levels of salinity.   While it's being treated at those plants now, it's expected to get to a point where it's untreatable.

Backup plans call for making sure there's drinking water, especially for communities at the lower end of the parish.  A pipeline that's already tied into Jefferson Parish would be used to supply water to homes and businesses.

"As early as [Wednesday], if need be, it can feed Belle Chasse from Jefferson Parish," says Nungesser.  "We'll begin work on installing 700 feet of line to connect us to Orleans Parish."

Installing a pipeline from Orleans Parish to Plaquemines, though, could take a couple of days to complete.

In the meantime, parish leaders say fresh water from the river will be pumped onto barges and then shipped down to communities in the lower end of the parish.

For a long-term solution, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it will start building a sill -- basically a makeshift underwater levee in the river at Myrtle Grove to stop saltwater intrusion south of New Orleans.

The project, though, won't begin until August 13 and could take six weeks to complete.

Parish leaders want to stress, the drinking water across Plaquemines is safe.  Still, they are asking people to conserve water to make sure there's enough to go around.

Nungesser says the Jefferson Parish pipeline could be open as early as Wednesday.  He says the pipeline will not supply water to people on the east bank of the parish.  Barges will deliver water to those intake centers.