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Parched Perspectives: Baton Rouge battles another year of drought
A half dozen rides were canceled this summer due to the dangerous heat index. Although the weather has improved enough to go on rides again, the lush landscape we’re used to seeing along the way is mostly brown. We’re experiencing an extreme drought and it doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon.
How dry are we talking?
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System (didn’t know that was a thing until now), Baton Rouge is currently experiencing “exceptional drought.” We’re at the level where fishing is compromised, mosquito numbers decrease (one nice element), pasture and crop loss is widespread, and water shortages and restrictions are implemented.
At the end of August, the Baton Rouge Water Company urged residents to conserve water, but there was no mandatory restriction put in place and you can look at some lawns around town and quickly see who is watering and who is not. They have not sent out any updates, so I assume all is well. Or, we’re going to all get immediate ‘cease and desist’ letters.
Now, this isn’t the driest it’s ever been, but the combination of the super hot summer and the lack of rain has everyone on edge. Past super dry years include 2000, 2011-12 and 2022.
Oh yeah, it was pretty dry last year, too
For the second year in a row, we’ve seen the Mississippi River dip to abnormally low levels. In fact, it’s so abnormal it became dangerous due to the threat to barge traffic and the water supply for New Orleans.
Last year the Mississippi River was so low it exposed the remains of a wrecked ferryboat. The story got national attention, actually. We all sighed when the water returned and it sank away from sight yet again. Didn’t think it would be back so quickly.
We returned for a visit on Monday, October 2 and found it of far less interest to folks this year. The pathway was a bit overgrown, but thankfully I brought along some clippers. The vegetation in the area was very overgrown, and sentiment had resettled into the crevasse of the ship.
New year, same problems
The impacts of the drought this year are similar to what we experienced last year, but it’s starting to get more dire this time around. The first big impact is one that hits us right in our pocketbooks.
When barge traffic is impacted, it impacts the economy. The Mississippi River is a significant cargo waterway in America, transporting about 500 million tons of goods annually. The loss of the flow of goods creates all sorts of economic hits that expand beyond the obvious.
Food is one of the items that goes up in price when the river slows down. Much of our food is transported by barge. For example, about 60% of U.S. grain exports are taken by barge down the Mississippi to New Orleans. That’s where the corn, soybeans and wheat are stored, too.
Couple the increased cost of shipping with the decreased supply due to the drought impacting crops, and you have classic capitalism. Supply and demand, baby! Expect your grocery bill to be higher in the coming weeks if you haven’t already noticed a spike.
The next impact is the one that has far more dire consequences for folks in New Orleans. When the river gets particularly low, it can cause saltwater intrusion into the drinking water supply. The Army Corps is working to combat this, but there’s only so much that can be done.
The problem seems to be worse this year. The full impact there is expected to begin in October and Governor Edwards says it could last until January. That bit of news has caused another great Capitalist moment: a run on the grocery store!
Water is flying off the shelves and will be hard to find at some point. Should we be doing the same in Baton Rouge?
Save Our Water
The short answer is, Baton Rouge’s drinking water comes from groundwater aquifers, which are not impacted by the saltwater intrusion in the Mississippi River. Although you don’t need to run out and buy water today, you might want to learn more about the potential danger that’s lurking around the corner.
Groups have been fighting for years to get attention on Baton Rouge’s water supply. The aquifer in question is the Southern Hills Aquifer and although it’s not at risk of saltwater intrusion because of the Mississippi River, it is at risk of intrusion due to over pumping.
There are legal battles between the Baton Rouge Water Company and the Capital Area Groundwater Conservation that are downright ugly. And of course there’s industry to blame.
Exxon, Entergy and Georgia-Pacific are all pulling water from the aquifer for industrial purposes. Why not use river water? Because they don’t have to!
Industry utilizes billions of gallons of water every day. They are literally taking water from our mouths.
“People ought to come first, not Exxon and Georgia-Pacific. We ought to save it for the people,” said Russel Honoré, a retired US army lieutenant general who leads an environmental group called the GreenARMY, based in Baton Rouge.
That’s a quote from an article published by The Guardian, but I had the pleasure of interviewing the General last year for the podcast I produced for the Walls Project.
Want to learn more about the river?
If you find any of this intriguing, you should consider taking a tour of the LSU Center for River Studies. It’s located on the new Water Campus located on River Road, right across from the levee. It houses one of the world’s largest moveable bed physical models of the lower Mississippi River.
I recently got the chance to take a tour of the facility and it is spectacular! The model is the true show stopper. It’s 10,000 square feet and you stand above it. There’s a little movie they show that explains what exactly you’re seeing.
The purpose of the model is to replicate the flow, water levels and sediment transport of the river. Once you go through the entire facility, you’ll fully appreciate how important that is now and will become in the future.
You can visit the facility on the first Sunday every month FOR FREE! It’s one of the many cool places you can go for First Free Sunday.
Additional references used for this article include: