Saltwater Intrusion Threatens Drinking Water along US Coasts

by Vins

In coastal areas of the United States, sea levels are rising drastically because of climate change, and the topic has not received much attention from corporate media. In October 2023, Delany Nolan reported for the Guardian on the upstream influx of undrinkable salt water. The Guardian’s report quoted Jeeban Panthi, a coastal hydrologist at Kansas State University: “The problem is everywhere,” meaning saltwater intrusion is occurring across sea coasts across the United States.

The “salt line” in coastal rivers is the zone where freshwater from upstream meets salt water from the ocean. This line typically moves back and forth naturally, but when areas experience prolonged drought, the salt water inexorably pushes farther inland, occupying freshwater channels.

For example, as temperatures increase and rainfall lessens, the southern Mississippi River is experiencing drought, a problem for countless citizens who rely on river water. Since June 2023, thousands of Louisianans in Plaquemines Parish, downstream of New Orleans, have been forced to rely on bottled water, and the Big Easy may be next. This threat has prompted talk of a 12-mile pipeline to save the city’s water supply.

Such costly placeholder projects are being faced by many cities on the East Coast and West Coast, the very areas that have seen population booms in recent decades. Already the resort town of Hilton Head, South Carolina, has lost 10 of its 14 freshwater wells. The same thing is happening on the coast of Rhode Island.

Most at risk are Florida and California. Experts give their cities five to 10 years before their potable water is contaminated, too. Miami may not have that long, as its salt line is moving inland by 330 feet a year.

Corporate news outlets, including Time, CNN, and CBS News, have covered the threat of saltwater intrusion, but these reports have not addressed its occurrence beyond Louisiana. A number of news outlets, including FOX Weather and Axios, hastened to report that the threat in Louisiana was temporary, rather than a long-term problem. Earth Island News republished the Guardian’s report.

Source: Delany Nolan, “Saltwater Threat to Louisiana Drinking Water to Grow Across US, Experts Warn,” The Guardian, October 10, 2023.

Student Researcher: Brianna Hickey (Frostburg State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Duncan (Frostburg State University)