Gulf of Mexico
Kim Dillon, manager at Ben & Ben Becnel, Inc. shows damage from the recent drought and heatwave in one of their groves in Plaquemines Parish, La., Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Citrus farmers in the southeast corner of Louisiana are scrambling to protect and save their crops from salt water ( (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)).

LA - Louisiana citrus farmers are seeing a mass influx of salt water that could threaten seedlings

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Commercial citrus growers have dwindled over the past few decades in south Louisiana, where farmers have had to battle hurricanes, flooding, invasive insects, freezes and drought to keep their groves alive.

The latest hurdle comes from a slow-moving threat — a mass influx of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico that is creeping up the drought-stricken Mississippi River. Not only is the saltwater intrusion threatening drinking water supplies for communities, but it can also kill citrus seedlings.

The issue is forcing farmers to brainstorm other ways to irrigate their crops with fresh water — including storing the little rain water they’ve gotten this summer, hauling in fresh water and establishing makeshift salination treatment facilities. Some are looking into whether they can afford, let alone get their hands on, an expensive reverse-osmosis machine.

“They’re going to have something up their sleeve. They know how to survive, but there’s no getting around how dire the situation is,” said Joey Breaux, the assistant commissioner of soil and water for the state’s agricultural department, about the farmers. “Unless they have another source of irrigation water, or a way to pretreat irrigation water, it doesn’t look too good.”

Many communities in south Louisiana rely on the Mississippi’s fresh water, with their intake facilities located along the river. Typically, the mighty flow of the Mississippi is enough to keep mass amounts of salt water from reaching too far inland. But hot and dry conditions across the country this summer triggered drought conditions that slowed the Mississippi’s velocity and lowered its water levels. As a result, for the second year in a row, Louisiana is hastily working to avoid the disaster of a slow-moving salt water intrusion.

The Army Corps of Engineers is busy raising the height of an underwater levee used to block or slow the salt water, and 15 million gallons (57 million liters) of fresh water is barged in to treatment facilities.

Additionally, earlier this week Gov. John Bel Edwards wrote to President Joe Biden, saying federal assistance is “necessary to save lives and to protect property, public health and safety or to lessen or avert the threat of a disaster.” Biden granted the request.

And while many are focused on the possible impacts of the salt water influx on Louisiana’s most well-known city, 15 miles (24 kilometers) down the river is Belle Chasse — a community of about 11,000 people that sits on the west bank of the Mississippi.

If the rows of citrus trees and farm stands advertising satsumas don’t make it evident that the small community is Louisiana’s unofficial citrus capital then perhaps one can look to the area’s annual Orange Festival. The event has commemorated the harvest season for more than 70 years.

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