Drought Threatens to Contaminate New Orleans Drinking Supply With Sea Water

Oct 6, 2023

Drought in the Mississippi River Valley is threatening the drinking water supply in New Orleans and elsewhere. Experts blame climate change for the drought.

For more than a year, heat and drought have plunged the Mississippi River to or near record lows. The low water level has slowed its southward flow. That has enabled denser salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to push farther upstream against the mighty river and contaminate the drinking water supply. The northward-flowing wedge of sea water could reach New Orleans’ treatment plants later this month.  That would make the water unsafe to drink for more than 1.2 million people.

Local leaders and engineers are launching costly projects to address the problem. President Biden last week designated Louisiana’s water woes a national emergency. That enables the state to seek federal disaster aid. Many have taken to asking for divine help.     

“We are praying for rain,” a local councilman told The Associated Press.  

Drinking salt water can be fatal. That's because kidneys only produce urine that’s less salty than sea water. To get rid of the salt, humans would have to urinate more than they consume. That leads to dehydration. That's a condition that can cause death. 

Those living in the area are scrambling to prepare. Many have flooded stores to buy bottled water. Local governments are building three huge desalination machines along the river. Those machines will remove salt from water. Local leaders have arranged to ship water from upstream by barge. Companies are bidding to build a pipeline to bring fresh water to the area. That could cost $250 million. It could also take three months to complete.  

Photo from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of PRA.

Reflect: How can we help ensure that everyone has access to safe and clean water, especially in the face of environmental challenges like droughts?

Based on the details in the story, what might cause the contamination of the drinking water supply in the Mississippi River Valley? (Common Core RI.5.3; RI.6.3)
a. The installation of desalination machines.
b. The depletion of the Mississippi River due to heat and drought.
c. The shortage of bottled water in stores.
d. The federal disaster assistance provided to Louisiana.
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