Salty Situation

01/01/2024
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    A tanker ship moves up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
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    To slow the flow of salt, workers built an underwater sill in the Mississippi River. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
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    As salt water flowed north, locals bought fresh bottled water from stores. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
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    Two dogs walk a stretch of riverbank that usually remains underwater. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
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    These steps usually reach the water, but river levels dropped steeply in mid-2023. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
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Who knew salt water could cause so much trouble?

New Orleans, Louisiana, and its surrounding towns rely on the Mississippi River for fresh water. But last year, salt water from the Gulf of Mexico crept upstream. The brackish backwash wreaked havoc on water systems. Many feared the salt would infiltrate New Orleans’ water supply.

What makes salt water a problem? It corrodes water heaters and other freshwater machinery. It leaves mineral residue that clogs machines. And of course, you can’t drink it.

“We’re draining the hot water heater every few days to get most, or a good bit, of the salt out of that,” says restaurant owner Byron Marinovich. “The ice machine has been off since the third week of April.”

The salty invasion started in spring. Officials warned locals to avoid drinking the tap water. Meanwhile, trucks delivered bottled drinking water. Barges dumped fresh water into the river to dilute the salt content.

There are 32 states in the Mississippi River basin, including Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Conditions in those states affect the flow downstream. Last year, parts of those states saw extreme drought. The river slowed. Just north of New Orleans, it flowed at half its normal speed. The water level plummeted. With the river weakened, water from the Gulf of Mexico traveled upstream.

Another factor: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers frequently dredges the lower Mississippi. This involves scraping sediment from the mouth of the river, widening it for cargo ships. That may have made it easier for salt water to seep northward.

Relief came late in the year. Rain in western Louisiana helped replenish the river. The Corps of Engineers built an underwater sill (a dam-like structure) to slow the salt water’s progress.

For now, New Orleans has fresh water, and the forecast looks good. But the danger hasn’t passed. The sea level around New Orleans rises by as much as .35 inches every year. That’s much faster than the global average.

Louisiana officials now seek long-term solutions. Some suggest permanent pipelines to pump fresh water from upriver. An Illinois-based company called WaterSurplus is sending water filtration systems to Louisiana. These systems use reverse osmosis to desalinate the water.

Even rivers and seas are affected by the curse brought by man’s rebellion against God. But God protects His world. He uses everyday people to push back that curse. Sometimes that looks like delivering bottled water to a thirsty city. Sometimes it looks like designing water filtration systems. What good work is God calling you to do?

Why? Even big cities depend on natural resources like rivers and oceans. By protecting those resources, we protect people.

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