[StBernard] Saltwater wedge reaches Chalmette; Plaquemines buys N.O. water

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Thu Aug 16 21:49:03 EDT 2012

Saltwater wedge reaches Chalmette; Plaquemines buys N.O. water

Published: Wednesday, August 15, 2012, 6:14 PM Updated: Wednesday,
August 15, 2012, 6:56 PM

By Richard Rainey, The Times-Picayune

Saltwater creeping up the Mississippi River reached Chalmette Wednesday,
forcing Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser to declare a state of
emergency and sign a deal with New Orleans to send millions of gallons of
drinking water to its downriver neighbor. Slowing currents amid one of the
most widespread droughts in recent memory has allowed water from the Gulf of
Mexico to breach Plaquemines' water plants and come within six river miles
of New Orleans' own water supply points.

"It could take out the water supply for all of us if we're not careful," New
Orleans Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant told the Sewerage & Water Board's other
members Wednesday, moments before they approved the Plaquemines deal.

To combat the saltwater, a contractor with the Army Corps of Engineers will
construct a $5.8 million underwater dam meant to block the denser Gulf water
from moving farther upriver. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. of Oak Ridge,
Ill. will build the 1,700-foot-long sediment pile, known as a sill, at
Alliance in Plaquemines, where similar sills were built in 1988 and 1999.

On Monday, corps New Orleans District commander Col. Edward Fleming said the
project will take about six weeks, but that the leading edge of the
saltwater should retreat behind the sill within the next two weeks. Three
miles of the Mississippi were closed Wednesday to allow Great Lakes to
install a pipeline needed to build the sill.

Nungesser issued a drinking water advisory as saltwater contaminated water
supplies at Dalcour, Belle Chasse, Pointe a la Hache and Port Sulphur.
Plaquemines recorded sodium levels in some places as high as 200 milligrams
per liter, or 10 times the recommended concentration for potable water.

While the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't consider sodium or
chloride to be health risks, high salt levels in drinking water can threaten
people on low-sodium diets or undergoing dialysis. Parish officials advised
patients with salt-sensitive diagnoses to consult their physicians.

The S&WB agreed to sell Plaquemines as much as a million gallons of potable
water a day, pumped through a new 750-foot long, 8-inch-wide pipe connecting
the two parishes' water supplies along Woodland Highway in Belle Chasse. Boh
Bros. Construction Co. managed to build the line in less than two days. S&WB
General Superintendent Joe Becker said crews were flushing the new line to
clear it of any potential contaminants before turning on the water Wednesday
evening or Thursday morning.

Nonetheless, Plaquemines Homeland Security Director Guy Laigast predicted
the New Orleans water will only offer relief in the northern parts of the of
the parish.

Nungesser requested help from the S&WB on Aug. 7. While the board didn't
ratify the agreement until Wednesday, S&WB Executive Director Marcia St.
Martin said the emergency situation allowed S&WB staff to act before seeking
permission from the full board.

St. Martin said New Orleans has a glut of freshwater and that the
Plaquemines deal will not affect the S&WB's capacity. She also sought to
allay fears that the wedge had reached the city's water plants.

"Water quality in New Orleans is not impacted by saltwater intrusion," she

St. Martin noted that, as an added precaution, the S&WB purchased about 50
acres in St. Charles Parish in the 1950s with plans to build a new water
plant farther from the Gulf.

The new influx of freshwater will serve Plaquemines' West Bank customers.
Jefferson Parish has two lines hooked to Plaquemines at Peters Road and
Belle Chasse Highway capable of sending 3 million gallons a day total, but
no request had been made for the extra capacity, Jefferson Public Works
Director Kazem Alikhani said Wednesday.

Plaquemines agreed to pay the S&WB $2.89 for every 1,000 gallons, or $29,000
a day. That sum, coupled with St. Martin's comments that New Orleans had
more than enough potable water, led several board members to revive the
long-standing notion of selling city water.

"We want to work with our neighboring parishes...because we're all in this
together," said City Councilwoman Stacy Head, an S&WB member. "But if we're
providing a high-quality product that's at a significantly lower price than
you can get elsewhere, I do think it would be a good discussion to have as
to whether or not there should be some profit for our own ratepayers to have
the benefit of."

The board's staff estimated it could sell 70 million gallons of excess water
a day, an amount that could jump significantly if the S&WB can make major
repairs to its aging network.

"I think you can see there's a huge amount of revenue potential there, but
we can't get there...until we can stop the leaks and have a more efficient
system," said board president pro tem Raymond Manning.

Selling water was one of the first big ideas former Mayor Ray Nagin floated
after he took office in 2002. It met a slow demise. The S&WB had filed for a
trademark on the bottle's label in 2002, but canceled it in 2010.

The real issue wasn't the water, St. Martin said, but the packaging. A deal
with Dixie Brewing Co. put the water in a plastic container resembling a
longneck beer bottle.

"There was an indication along the tourist and convention business that that
was an attractive bottle," St. Martin said. "But for parents, it was not how
they wanted to introduce it to children and encourage them to drink water."

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