While the Great Salt Lake dries up in the West, New Orleans faces its own saline crisis in the South | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

November 29, 2023 News » Cover Story

While the Great Salt Lake dries up in the West, New Orleans faces its own saline crisis in the South 

Salt and Water

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  • Cover design by Derek Carlisle

NEW ORLEANS—Hurricane season in Louisiana isn't a short timeframe, running from June 1 until Nov. 30. But despite 2023 being what a lot of locals described as one of the hottest summers in memory, the positive trend of the past half-year was the notable lack of a tropical storm finding landfall.

By that measure, New Orleans—a city with experience enduring some real beatings from Mother Nature—could breathe a sigh of relief, without a single hurricane bearing down on the city. There's been a flipside to that, though. It was a dry summer—real dry, far too dry.

The past year saw the Mississippi River system—from its Minnesota headwaters down to the Gulf of Mexico—badly affected by a Midwestern drought. And by the time September rolled around, the pressure of water flowing south into the Gulf had ebbed to the point that salty ocean water began doing something only occasionally seen: It flowed back upriver.

What was created in that unusual situation was a "saltwater wedge," a situation that saw, at times, a literal line of fresh and salt waters meeting within the Mississippi, with models suggesting that the river, around the time of Halloween, could become brackish and undrinkable in NOLA.

Adding to that, the corrosive effects of the salt were set to affect everything from your local coffeeshop's brew to the components in dishwashers, sinks and other appliances.

As someone who's lived in Salt Lake City only a year ago, the notion of salt and water conspiring into a bad environmental marriage was something I'd seen firsthand. I regularly visited the Great Salt Lake, hiking the paths around the old Saltair sites, visiting an arid Antelope Island and walking into the exposed Spiral Jetty earthwork sculpture.

At times, the weird, chalky residue of the sand along those receded banks seemed oddly beautiful, but these peculiar sights were far from a best-case scenario for the ecosystem of the lake.

And it wasn't the only environmental wrinkle of our time in Utah. Dust storms and ongoing inversions come to mind.

But even after leaving the Great Salt Lake behind and moving across the country, the threat of a "saltwater wedge" was a new twist.

click to enlarge The New Orleans skyline, seen from across the Missisippi River, where drought conditions this year led to a “salt wedge” of ocean water moving upriver to the city. - THOMAS CRONE
  • Thomas Crone
  • The New Orleans skyline, seen from across the Missisippi River, where drought conditions this year led to a “salt wedge” of ocean water moving upriver to the city.

Livin' on the Wedge
Taya Fontanette works for The Water Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that works to create a network of communities striving to make sure the Gulf region is more climate resilient. Within that network, she said, New Orleans is a leader in rights-based water management.

Fontanette said the potential of the saltwater wedge "did spark a lot of worry." And while those worries have died down, particularly in Orleans Parish (Louisiana parlance for "county"), she said areas to the south of the city that extend into the Gulf of Mexico continue to face challenges as saline water creeps inland.

"We're still trying to keep the news alive about what's happening," she said.

As September turned into October, the northward pace of the wedge slowed. As of press time, the saltwater wedge had stalled about 30 miles south of New Orleans, missing the state's primary population center.

At the Algiers waterworks, the first of two supplying much of NOLA's water, crews had been delivering one million gallons of water daily to fight the salinity, brought in by literal barges.

If that seems a huge investment, a pipeline proposal that would've been sped into existence further upriver, at New Orlean's key Carrollton water facility, would've cost some $250 million to build.

In some respects, what's strange about the local response to the saltwater threat is that ... it was never that extreme. Just as Salt Lake residents seem, at times, to be curiously calm about the decline of the Great Salt Lake, the wedge never reached crisis point among the NOLA citizenry. Fontenette attributes that to a certain, battle-hardened population.

"We have a very long history in responding to disasters," she said, "so the methods in which we've informed people has become more streamlined."

In effect, it's about not panicking people, or crying wolf, Fontenette said, while still keeping a message of awareness out there in the consciousness.

After all, if not this time ...

"Water is always on our mind, [like] during the rainy season, when there are water boil advisories," Fontenette said. "The quality of our water is constantly being questioned. We have to take action to actually protect ourselves in our homes."

Cutting Through the Fog
While the terms "climate change" and "global warming" might immediately pop up in this discussion, there are other man-made variables at play, according to one researcher and writer.

Dean Klinkenberg, a journalist and author based in St. Louis, has written books and articles about the Mississippi River for a wide variety of sources and has traveled the river extensively. Writing under his own name and podcasting as The Mississippi Valley Traveler, Klinkenberg was asked if the Mississippi offers America a chance to observe, up-close, climate change. Is the river, in some respects, a good gauge of how we're dealing with warming and climate issues, generally?

"I've been thinking about this issue lately, so your question is timely," Klinkenberg responded. "I take a more cautious approach than others when it comes to predictions about what impacts climate change will have on this or that, as I don't think we have a very good track record predicting the future. Most of the troubles we're seeing these days along the Mississippi have either been caused by or exacerbated by human engineering, not climate change."

Specifically in regards to the wedge, he added that the threat of saltwater creeping up the Mississippi is the result of not just a period of extreme drought, but also prior efforts to deepen the river channel and facilitate navigation, the destruction of vital wetlands that stored water and an artificial concentration of the river's flow, which causes water to empty out of the main channel more quickly than it used to.

"We've tried to re-engineer the Mississippi for very specific purposes—bulk transportation and flood prevention—and in the process, we've engineered away most of the river's natural resilience," Klinkenberg said. "I think what we've done to the Mississippi showcases how our attempts to engineer the natural world for narrow purposes has made us more vulnerable to disruptions from extreme environmental events, such as flooding and drought."

That last word, "drought," has shown itself a problematic thing on multiple, environmental levels in Louisiana, both inside and out of the prime population center of New Orleans.

Though the city of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes haven't suffered the worst effects of the saltwater wedge by the once-predicted Halloween, the season did see a different, drought-adjacent issue; something known as "super fog."

Exposed riverbanks in Louisiana reflect the extreme drought conditions that contributed to phenomena known as a ‘salt wedge’ and “super fog.” - THOMAS CRONE
  • Thomas Crone
  • Exposed riverbanks in Louisiana reflect the extreme drought conditions that contributed to phenomena known as a ‘salt wedge’ and “super fog.”

The Louisiana news nonprofit The Lens, which keeps an active eye on the state's environmental issues, noted in an Oct. 26 post by Delaney Dryfoos that a deadly multi-vehicle crash on Oct. 23—which shut down a major arterial highway into the NOLA region—was caused by a noxious blend of elements.

Even the day prior, with festival season rolling into full-swing in the city's French Quarter, a strange, murky sky enveloped the local skyline.

The next morning, the situation was even more dire. And despite authorities suggesting that roadways would be clear for the morning hours, commuters were subject to a thick wall of fog.

Wrote Dryfoos: "The immediate cause of Monday's 168-car collision was 'super fog,' formed when thick smoke from smoldering marsh fires mixed with moist fog, the kind that hugs the ground on cool, still Louisiana mornings. Drivers collided, faced with white-out conditions with zero visibility. At press time, the death toll stood at seven. The 22-mile Manchac Swamp Bridge on I-55 also remained impassable."

Dryfoos went on to describe how the region's drought conditions had exacerbated marsh fires in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. At the time, most of Orleans Parish was categorized as in "extreme drought," a rating that described much of Utah until the heavy snow and rainfall of the past winter and spring. "Conditions are still arid enough to cause saltwater intrusion, crawfish die-off, crop-irrigation problems, poor air quality and difficult-to-extinguish fires," Dryfoos wrote.

Since then, the presence of super fog in Louisiana has varied, with a visibly grimy, grainy skyline on some afternoons, coupled with a quirky scent.

Again, though, this writer experienced a bit of that in Salt Lake City with the winter inversions of 2021 and '22, including a deep, yellowish-gray sky on the first day of our arrival, washed away later that January afternoon with torrential rain that turned driving down Interstate 80 into a white-knuckle experience. And yet, the next day? Clear skies, washed free of the murk.

Loose Ends
Our final equation of "Salt + Water = some SLC/NOLA connection" is this: in 1973, Mike Cassidy used stock footage and other visual trickery to create a film called The Giant Brine Shrimp, in which the titular monster terrorized Salt Lake City's most-treasured buildings.

The film was part of a wave of early '70s eco-disaster films, though it mostly received local showings (you can watch it on YouTube today). It's good, campy fun with a message.

Meanwhile, in 2023, Tommy Wiseau—the creator of what's often-considered the worst-made film in modern cinema history, The Room—has returned to the director's chair with the Big Shark, a long-rumored production that shows, yes, a very big shark terrorizing a flooded French Quarter.

The hope down here is that the infamous auteur's vision is only a fiction, as fanciful as a brine shrimp uprising, today and for a long time to come.

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