As saltwater moves up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico, colleges and universities in New Orleans are bracing for disruption.
The intrusion will mean water from the river, the primary source of drinking water for the New Orleans area, will be too salty to consume.
Nunez Community College in Chalmette will be the first campus affected. Chancellor Tina Tinney said the saltwater could reach campus as early as Oct. 19. The intrusion is expected to reach New Orleans the following week.
Tinney said the school has no plans to switch to remote operations but is working with local and state officials to prepare. The campus could serve as a distribution point for bottled water for the community if asked by local officials, Tinney said.
Within the city limits, the University of New Orleans, Tulane University, Loyola University and local campuses within the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS), which includes Delgado, have no plans to switch to remote learning.
The saltwater wedge is a result of the historic drought impacting the Mississippi River basin and the rivers that feed it. Less water is flowing downstream than usual, allowing saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico to flow upstream. The bottom of the Mississippi River is below sea level for the entire length of Louisiana, WWNO reports.
UNO and Tulane sent messages to their campus communities to assure students, faculty and staff they have enough bottled water for the campus if necessary.
Students living on campus will still be able to shower and brush their teeth with salty water as usual.
Tulane has purchased reverse osmosis equipment to desalinate water for non-potable purposes, including research and mechanical purposes.
Saltwater advances up the Mississippi River about once a decade, most recently in 2022 and 2012, but it doesn’t usually reach so far upstream. In 1988, it reached Kenner but for only a few days. This year, experts say the intrusion could disrupt the city’s supply of drinking water for weeks or months.
Because a saltwater intrusion of this magnitude occurs so rarely, it isn’t covered in school emergency preparedness plans, much like the COVID-19 pandemic was a unique challenge for higher ed campuses.
“This is an event that we don’t have a great deal of experience in,” LCTCS President Monty Sullivan said in an interview.
Sullivan pointed out that much of the work being done in response to the crisis was being done by a workforce educated by the community college system.
“Piping is being laid across the stretch of Jefferson Parish,” Sullivan said. “Someone has to ask, ‘Who is doing that work?’”
“Our work is important to all of Louisiana,” he added.
The Illuminator reached out to Southern University New Orleans, University of Holy Cross and Dillard University and did not receive an immediate response. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX