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The Mississippi River is again experiencing historically low levels due to drought

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

For the second year in a row, the Mississippi River is at historically low levels. Once-submerged sandbars have resurfaced, and shipping has been disrupted. And at the mouth of the Mississippi, the drought has allowed saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico to threaten drinking water for Louisiana residents. Here's WWNO's Halle Parker.

HALLE PARKER, BYLINE: Jaime Taylor pulled plates out of his dishwasher a few weeks ago, only to find they weren't totally clean. They were dotted with dark red spots. He was confused until...

JAIME TAYLOR: I started looking and took the top rack off. The saltwater has eaten into and corroded the top rack to where rust is getting on my dishes.

PARKER: Saltwater from the Gulf had pushed upstream in late June, inundating the river near where Taylor lives, the southern tip of Plaquemines Parish. It's also where the parish gets its drinking water, so Taylor and others lost clean water and appliances.

TAYLOR: If you drive up and down the road, you're going to see hot water heaters sitting by the road because people have had to replace them.

PARKER: Water heaters, dishwashers, ice makers, washing machines - many have seen some sort of costly damage. The parish has asked the Biden administration to reimburse residents now that a federal disaster has been declared. They're waiting on an answer. Taylor says even before the salt emergency, their water system was ignored.

TAYLOR: We're neglected. I mean, bar none, it's just that simple.

PARKER: At its worst, parish leaders say the water flowing through people's pipes was 6.5 times saltier than the Environmental Protection Agency recommends. The area was under a health advisory for four months. Federal and local officials have brought the emergency under control by fixing another water treatment plant, shipping in fresh water by barge and installing filters to remove the salt. Mitch Jurisich represents the most affected part of the parish. He says officials have only just begun to assess whether the damage from saltwater corrosion extends past home appliances to the parish's network of water lines and towers. If so, chemicals like lead could leach into the water.

MITCH JURISICH: I think we're going to see some long-term impacts. Got to definitely prepare ourselves.

PARKER: Preparing is what geology professor Tor Tornqvist with Tulane University recommends. He says that saltwater intrusion has been known to happen naturally almost once a decade, but now it's happened two years in a row, with this year being worse.

TOR TORNQVIST: On one hand, we'll have bigger floods, but we will also have bigger droughts. So we will have larger fluctuations on rivers.

PARKER: And the current big drought has not only threatened drinking water but shipping across the entire Mississippi River, Tornqvist says. It's created a bottleneck at different parts of the river from Memphis, Tenn., to Vicksburg, Miss., all the way down through Louisiana. Giant ships are struggling to get farmers' crops to global markets.

TORNQVIST: Under extreme drought situations that we kind of have right now, it becomes a real issue for navigation - right? - because the channel depth decreases, and we have these really large container ships that have to get as far inland as Baton Rouge.

PARKER: Ultimately, the ships are waiting for the same thing Louisiana residents like Taylor are - rainfall across the Mississippi River Basin and a lot of it.

For NPR News, I'm Halle Parker in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Halle Parker