Saltwater Creeps up the Mississippi River Amid Lowest Levels in Years

by Lauren Boisvert
(Photo by Julia Heins/Getty Images)

Water levels in the Mississippi River are dipping dangerously low, the lowest they’ve been in decades. Now, saltwater is creeping into the river, which threatens the river’s supply of safe drinking water. The saltwater is rushing in from the Gulf of Mexico to fill the gaps caused by low water levels, according to a report from FOX Weather.

The Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center reports that a nearly 400-mile stretch of the river is at or below the low-water threshold. This stretch starts where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River, all the way south to Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Things are more drastic between Osceola and Helena, Arkansas. There, the water levels are below the gauges. And as of Wednesday, Oct. 12, the river in Memphis, Tennessee is down 8.3 feet.

Water levels haven’t been this low since 2012, according to service coordination hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center (LMRFC) Jeff Graschel. According to Graschel, this happens about once every 10 years, and it’s caused by severe drought and lack of rainfall. 41% of the US drains into the river, and that 41% is a barren, parched landscape at the moment.

Even after heavy rainfall, it takes a while for the water to reach the river. According to Graschel, water in western Pennsylvania and Minnesota can take about a month to reach the southern river basin. Now, saltwater is rushing up the river to compensate for the low levels. That’s compromising the drinking water for towns and cities that sit along the river.

Saltwater Rushes Into Mississippi River Compromising Safe Drinking Water

Saltwater enters the river basin because the bottom is lower than the surface water in the Gulf of Mexico. Therefore, when water levels in the river drop drastically, it sucks the saltwater up from the Gulf.

“If you get too much salt in the water, then that doesn’t allow you to be able to use it for consumption,” said Graschel. He added that this same thing happened in 2012. Matt Roe, spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans office, reported that the saltwater has moved 57 miles upstream as of Wednesday, Oct. 12.

“Currently, the greatest risk associated with the saltwater intrusion is the appearance of unsafe salinity levels at the intakes of municipal drinking water and industrial intakes along the river in Plaquemines Parish,” said Roe. The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing an underwater sill to restrict the flow of dense saltwater at the bottom of the river. Roe reported that it will be finished in about two weeks. Hopefully, it will have a significant impact on the saltwater flow.

In addition to bringing in saltwater, the low levels are also halting barges along the river. This is drastically impacting farmers and truck drivers trying to deliver grains and beans for transport. Grain elevators are shut down all along the river, causing traffic backups for hours at the remaining elevators.