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The Mississippi River Is Getting Saltier

Ryan Utz
Chatham University
Researchers found that 37 percent of the drainage area of the U.S. is getting significantly saltier.

A new study shows waterways across the country are getting saltier — including the Mississippi River. That has implications for the ecosystem and for drinking water.


The salt comes from two main places. Road salt — which is used to help melt ice and snow on roadways — and also agricultural fertilizers. Fertilizers often have potassium in them, which is a salt.

Researchers found that 37 percent of the drainage area of the United States is getting significantly saltier. Alex Kolker is a coastal scientist with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and Tulane.


"The fact that it's happening on such a broad scale is a new finding to those of us in the scientific community," he says.


Kolker says extra salt could harm plants and animals on the Louisiana coast. Not so much in the ocean — which, of course, is already pretty salty — but in the fresher parts of the ecosystem. Areas like the upper Barataria Basin.


"Amphibians are very sensitive to changes in salt," says Kolker. "And of course the plants are a really important part of the system because they hold everything together."


Water infrastructure could be at risk down the line, too. Higher salt levels can corrode pipes and leach toxic chemicals into the water supply. That’s already been happening in parts of the Northeast.


The Sewerage and Water Board — which oversees drinking water in New Orleans — was not immediately available for comment.


Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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