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Sea Change

Pardon the Intrusion

In this aerial photo, dredging operations to build an underwater sill are seen in Plaquemines Parish, La., Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. A salt water wedge slowly moving upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, due to the unusually low water level in the river, may threaten municipal water supplies, potentially even New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gerald Herbert/AP
/
AP
In this aerial photo, dredging operations to build an underwater sill are seen in Plaquemines Parish, La., Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. A salt water wedge slowly moving upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, due to the unusually low water level in the river, may threaten municipal water supplies, potentially even New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Today, we are exploring a growing threat to our freshwater supplies in coastal regions all over the country. With climate change, we are experiencing sea-level rise and more frequent droughts, both of which make it easier for saltwater to creep into places we don’t want it.

First, we go to Plaquemines Parish, an area that’s been dealing with the effects of saltwater intrusion on their drinking water for months. An extreme drought across the Midwest has meant a less-than-mighty Mississippi. Which, has allowed seawater to come up the River—otherwise known as our drinking water supply down here. And then we travel to the coast of North Carolina, where we see another impact of saltwater intruding where we don’t want it. And we find out: what happens to agriculture when the saltwater comes in? Both of these places offer a glimpse into what could become a saltier future for much of our coastal communities.

Reported by Halle Parker and David Boraks. Hosted by Carlyle Calhoun and Halle Parker. Our managing producer is Carlyle Calhoun. Our sound designer is Maddie Zampanti. Sea Change is a production of WWNO and WRKF. We are part of the NPR Podcast Network and distributed by PRX.

David Boraks story was produced through a collaboration between WFAE public radio in Charlotte and Climate Central, a non-advocacy science and news group. Reporters John Upton and Kelly Van Baalen contributed.

PARDON THE INTRUSION

INTRO

GREGORY: You’re at the bar with Gregory at Commander Palace and today I’m going to make you the Salt Wedge.

CARLYLE: Commander’s Palace. Arguably New Orleans’ most famous restaurant, It;s been a around since the 1880s. The jazz brunch was invented here. … and now a new invention: the Salt Wedge cocktail.

GREGORY: It’s going 1.5 Milagro Reposado Tequila, .75 ounces of Aperol…

CARLYLE: In New Orleans, we’ve learned to take natural disasters in stride. Or at least with a drink.: We’ve got the Hurricane…and now, the Salt Wedge.

GREGORY: Give it a shake.

–ambi shake–

GREGORY: Now we’ll take the lime, put the back of it in salt. Add that to the drink and that gives you the wedge

CARLYLE: Gregory hands me the drink it’s orange. With a salty wedge of lime on the rim, poking fun at our latest environmental threat - This thing called a saltwater wedge that caused a lot of problems earlier this year.

GREGORY: Yeah, I mean if you have a couple of these, you’re not as worried about it you know!

CARLYLE: Mmm It’s not too salty!

–TRANSITION– music

HALLE: I’m jealous, after reporting on our saltwater wedge for the past few months, I could use a drink too.

CARLYLE: Well, It was delicious. But the reason for its invention was not so nice.

HALLE: It all started this summer. And just escalated. Listen to this clip.

<<Archival press conference>> CULLEN JONES: While the river level is not unprecedented, we are very close and with no rain forecasted in the valley, we do not predict positive outcomes for the near future.

CARLYLE CALHOUN: That doesn’t sound good. Who’s that?

HALLE PARKER: So that is Col. Cullen Jones, he leads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans District. This is him speaking at a press conference earlier this fall about how low the Mississippi River had gotten with this year’s drought. And because of tha, salt water from the Gulf of Mexico had moved upriver. Something we’ve seen before. But what he said next got everyone’s attention.

CULLEN: Based off the current forecast and projections, if no action is taken, we potentially could see the saltwater wedge all the way up to the French Quarter.

CARLYLE: The thought of salt water from the Gulf reaching the City of New Orleans really freaked people out.

HALLE: Oh yeah, it drew national headlines this fall.

News clip: the water levels are plummeting for the second year in a row.

News clip: tonight, the race to keep New Orleans drinking water safe.

(John Bell Edwards) I happen to be someone who believes in the power of prayer I’m going to ask people to pray for rain

CARLYLE: And we saw people in southeast Louisiana, people in this city, start to panic.

HALLE: Which was understandable to an extent if you know anything about where people here get their drinking water — for most communities down here on the last leg of the Mighty Mississippi, the water from our taps comes from the river.

CARLYLE: unlike Commander's Palaces' delicious Salt Wedge, you can't just drink actual salt water

HALLE: Not for long anyway. So in September, everyone in New Orleans’ started becoming experts on this hydrological phenomenon called “saltwater intrusion.” And that got us interested too.

<<theme music>>

CARLYLE: I’m Carlyle Calhoun.

HALLE: And I’m Halle Parker, and you’re listening to Sea Change.

HALLE:: Today, we are exploring a growing threat to our freshwater supplies in coastal regions all over the country.With climate change, we are experiencing sea-level rise and more frequent droughts, both of which make it easier for saltwater to creep into places we don’t want it.

CARLYLE: … First, Halle takes us to Plaquemines Parish, an area that’s been dealing with the effects of saltwater intrusion on their drinking water for months. …An extreme drought across the Midwest has meant a less-than-mighty Mississippi. Which, has allowed for seawater to come up the River. (other wise known as our drinking water supply down here)

Halle: And then we go to the coast of North Carolina, where we see another impact of saltwater intruding where we don’t want it. And we find out: what happens to agriculture when the saltwater comes in?

CARLYLE: Both of these places offer a glimpse into what could become a saltier future for much of our coastal communities. Halle, take it away.

ACT ONE

HALLE: <<driving ambi>> It’s late September, and I’m driving down to what many call the end of the world. Plaquemines Parish is long and finger-like, encompassing the last stretch of the Mississippi River before it empties into the Gulf.

As you make the drive from New Orleans deeper into Plaquemines Parish, the landscape grows increasingly rural. Strip malls and big box department stores turn into small houses and farmland. Cows and citrus. Keep going and you start to see the corpses of old oak trees as the ground has grown saltier.

I drive as far south as you can go while following the Mississippi River and reach Venice, Louisiana. It’s vastly different from the one in Italy. Home to just marinas, oil and gas and few convenience stores. Two gas stations.

<<bar ambi>>

I walk into one of the local bars to meet its owner Kristen Hartt.

Random person: Kristen!

HART: I’m coming! One second…

HALLE: Kristen wears a lot of hats. In the front of her bar, she has a store – and she’s constantly swapping between shop cashier and bartender. Her bar, Hart’s Old Cypress Bar, is pretty dark when you walk in. Not only dim lighting, but the walls are a dark wood only lit up by bright neon beer ads. It’s quiet today, just one man sits at the bar next to me. Jaime Taylor, a local charter fishing guide.

HALLE: I’m Halle by the way. 

JAIME TAYLOR: JT. 

HALLE: Nice to meet you. 

HALLE: Both Kristen and JT work and live on the southern end of Plaquemines Parish — the area hit hardest by the salt water that has migrated north from the river’s mouth. Near the end of June, the salt water rendered their water undrinkable. And it has stayed that way for more than three months.

HART: It's been like a roller coaster for the last few months. Like sometimes the water is super, super salty. Sometimes it's not as bad. Sometimes it smells like you're in a swimming pool.  Sometimes we have no water pressure. It's been a mess.

HALLE: Around 2,000 Plaquemines Parish residents have been dealing with the same problem. Drive around the area, JT says, and you can see how neighbors have been forced to dump pricey appliances along the road. At its worst, parish leaders say the water flowing through people’s pipes was 6.5 times saltier than the Environmental Protection Agency recommends. And after months, the damaging effects of the incredibly salty water running through the pipelines became more visible.

JAIME: 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. I know several people, five I can name off the top of my hand in the last two weeks, where they came home and their hot water heater has busted because the salt water has corroded it and their home has flooded.

HALLE: A few weeks before, JT himself was confused when he opened his dishwasher and found dark red spots on his plates.

JAIME: Started looking and took the top rack off. The salt water has eaten into it and corroded the top rack to where rust is getting on my dishes. (:08)

HALLE: Local officials had arranged free water distribution from fire stations, sending more than 1.5 million gallons out the door within three months – but Kristen and JT said availability has been spotty. And business owners have been largely left to fend for themselves.

As a fishing guide, JT says he’s had to warn his customers traveling south to buy water outside of the parish. Grocery stores in the south Plaquemines didn’t have enough. He gives clients a laundry list of disclaimers.

JAIME: You have to inform them that the water is not drinkable and don't make coffee when you get ice. Don't put it in your drinks, you know, if you have heart problems or kidney problems. … If you get to the dollar store here, everybody else down here has to have it too. So they're out. They have to get drinking water in the city. 

HALLE: And at a bar, where access to ice is critical, Kristen says it hasn’t been easy. Her bar usually makes its own ice, but that ice turned salty. When ice isn’t available from the parish, she’s had to pay $5 per bag that another store has shipped in from outside the parish. She says she’s tried to take it in stride.

HARTT:. Like I'm basically used to it. Like we're used to like going to see if the firehouse has ice so I can serve my customers mixed drinks without having to use that ice. 

JAIME: It's become a normal way of life. 

<<music transition>>

HALLE: This year wasn’t the first time Plaquemines had fallen victim to salty drinking water… and it won’t be the last. The phenomenon is known to happen about once every decade. To understand why, we go back to New Orleans to Tulane University.

TORBJORN TORNQVIST: I'm Torbjorn Törnquist. I'm a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane University.

HALLE: Torbjorn Tornqvist – Tor for short – has studied Louisiana’s coast for almost two decades. So I figured he could break down why this salt water creeps upriver from time to time. He started out by making it clear that this kind of saltwater intrusion can happen in any big river with a deep bottom. It’s not unique to the Mississippi or Louisiana.

TORBJORN: Well before those rivers reach the ocean, the channel bed actually drops well below sea level quite a bit inland. 

HALLE: So when there’s not a lot of fresh water flowing down the river like this year during our extreme drought, the salt water….

TORBJORN: can actually migrate landward by quite some distance. Because saltwater has a higher density than freshwater, it kind of sneaks into that channel.

HALLE: And that dense salt water slinks upstream along the bottom of the river, mixing and diluting as you move up the water column toward the water’s surface. To be clear, the water still isn’t nearly as salty as the ocean itself, not enough to bother say fish who live in freshwater, especially the ones in Louisiana.

But it is enough to become unhealthy for us humans who can’t tolerate much salt in our water, it could even be dangerous if you already have health problems like high blood pressure. A high-sodium diet isn’t good for our bodies. Just like how we can’t eat too many potato chips. Plus, it just doesn’t taste good.

Even though the saltwater wedge had happened before, this year’s was unusual. It marked the first time that a salt wedge had appeared two years in a row. Back-to-back historic droughts had led to back-to-back years of saltwater intrusion in Plaquemines Parish.

And Tor says, that as our climate changes, we can start to expect the saltwater wedge to return more often. Maybe not every year, but

TORBJORN:  Chances are that, it's going to get worse.

HALLE: And he says, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

TORBJORN: In fact, the first predictions of this phenomenon were made many decades ago, 30, 40 years ago. And that is that in, in much of the world climate change will lead to bigger extremes. So on one hand, we'll have bigger floods, but we will also have bigger droughts. And so we will have larger fluctuations on rivers.

HALLE: Droughts, especially the historic ones we’ve had lately, play the biggest role in determining how much water flows down the Mississippi River. But on the opposite end, the Gulf of Mexico could become more forceful as sea levels continue to rise. In Louisiana, rising seas fueled by global warming combined with a sinking coastline mean the state suffers from one of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the world. Tor says it’s something researchers will be interested in studying even more after this year.

TOR: I'm not sure we really fully know how big of a factor it might be. But it is a concern, I think, for the future because we know that sea level is going to continue to rise. It's probably going to continue to accelerate.  And it's very conceivable that combined with all these other things, it's going to lead to the saltwater intrusions becoming more, more common and penetrate deeper and deeper inland.

HALLE: And we as humans are also making it worse for ourselves. The muddy bottom of the Mississippi River is constantly scraped and deepened by dredging. That way big ships carrying cargo from across the world can sail upstream. The whole country’s economy relies on Louisiana’s shipping industry. But as Tor and even the Army Corps of Engineers itself admits… this dredging of the river makes the saltwater intrusion worse.

TOR:  It's a trade off, right, between the economy and freshwater supply. It's not something you can just say like, well, let's just stop dredging and then let those ships go somewhere else. That would probably have some major implications.  So,  you know, in all likelihood, this dredging is going to continue. 

HALLE: Bottomline, he says, communities need to be prepared for this to get worse. Places like New Orleans that typically haven’t been threatened received a wake-up call this year… so it might make sense that the city was left scrambling when the salt water had the potential to threaten water plants serving hundreds of thousands of people.

…But, the lower end of Plaquemines Parish has been affected by these saltwater wedges for decades. Yet, even they weren’t ready despite the fact they had just been in the same position the year before. That’s something Kristen and JT were frustrated about back at the bar, and I had similar questions. So I went to meet with someone who could guide me through the sparsely populated parish’s water woes and how they came to be. And… more importantly, what the parish plans to do about it.

<<car door closing ambi, feet walking up the steps of Port Sulphur government building>>

HALLE: I’m back in Plaquemines Parish. Only this time, I’m in the small town of Port Sulphur, population 1700. It’s dominated by mobile homes sitting on short stilts, cement block pilings, anything to elevate homes.

MITCH: How was your trip?

HALLE:  It was good. More traffic than usual. 

MITCH: Oh, they got some traffic nowadays. <<duck under>>

HALLE: I’m here to meet with Mitch Jurisich, a multigenerational oyster harvester who officially joined the parish council earlier this year. He’s traded time out on his boat for sitting in an office in the Port Sulphur government building. As someone who’s known Mitch for years, it’s almost a strange sight to see his sun-tanned face behind a desktop computer.

HALLE: Look at this, District Office Councilman.  <<laughter>>

MITCH: Yeah, who would have thought, huh?  

HALLE: Last fall’s election led to a huge turnover in the parish’s leadership. At least half the council is new, like Mitch. And he says the new class of council members assumed a lot of problems from the start, like its water system.

In south Plaquemines, you get regular boil water advisories due to low water pressure, unhealthy levels of chemicals used as disinfectant. Heck, one of the area’s main water plants had been out of commission for almost a year and a half before finally, steps were taken to fix it this year.

MITCH: When we took office in January, we inherited a broke water plant.

HALLE: So in June, when the salt water from the Gulf of Mexico reached the only operating water plant serving this far south, the parish was in real trouble. But, after months without clean water, things started to look up. The broken plant was finally fixed, boosting the parish’s water supply. Huge ships with fresh water also helped. Plus, the parish rented big, round water filters called reverse osmosis machines that can separate the salt from water.

The week I spoke with Mitch, it was the end of September. The water in some people’s homes had just begun to run fresh. And people were pretty excited about it.

MITCH: An elderly gentleman called me, said Hey my shower felt like I was sitting under my old time cistern and he said, I didn't taste no salt. That's the cleanest shower I've had. 

HALLE: The health advisory was fully lifted near the end of October, though the salt water has yet to retreat back to the Gulf of Mexico. And one of the parish’s 3 water plants remains closed.

Though the saltwater wedge had affected Plaquemines in the past, Mitch said this year was worse — the salt infiltrated north earlier and has stuck around longer than before. Even still, he said residents didn’t need to suffer for so long. The parish, he says, wasn’t prepared even though the issue has happened regularly in the past.

MITCH: This is definitely dealing with Mother Nature, but it's also failed upon the parish because we didn't have our water systems up and ready to go. 

HALLE: But he says the parish is working to be ready next time. They’ve crafted a master plan for overhauling the region’s water infrastructure – meaning building a new water plant… upgrading how much water can be pumped at one time… big changes that will make the parish’s water system more reliable for years to come.

Despite the threat of worsening hurricanes, land loss and rising seas – all on top of the salt water intrusion — Mitch said that most of the people left near the southern tip of Plaquemines Parish aren’t going anywhere.

MITCH: The citizens aren't gonna leave the low end of the parish. We're here to stay till, you know, till it's gone. The land's gone or whatever. So we have to provide the citizens with what they need. And quality water right now is the number one resource. 

HALLE: The number one resource not just for the people but for new business. Even as the land around Plaquemines continues to shrink, Mitch said they’re preparing for a boom. A giant gas export terminal is under construction. And he said more industry is on the way.

HALLE: With the new development, something rare has happened in struggling Plaquemines.

MITCH: We're already going to be looking at a surplus, you know, of monies this year, which is…

HALLE: How often does that happen in Plaquemines Parish? 

MITCH: Not very often.

So over the next 10 years, the parish leadership wants to build up Plaquemines so it can last. And drinking water comes first.

MITCH: You don't realize how important water is. Till it's gone.  I can do without power. It’s hard to do without water.

<<music transition>> 

HALLE: This problem of saltwater intruding on drinking water isn’t a new one, even outside of Louisiana. Over on the west coast, California communities are constantly battling against salty seawater infiltrating their underground aquifers. We see that in Florida and places in the Northeast too. But with rising seas, researchers say more coastal communities across the country should start to prepare.

RUNE STORESUND: If you haven't started you're already behind schedule. 

HALLE: Rune Storesund is a civil engineer and a consultant. But his biggest passion? Helping communities build smart, reliable infrastructure that properly accounts for and manages risk.

Rune said if communities don’t start to prepare, they could find themselves in the same situation as New Orleans this year — scrambling for a solution while the crisis bears down. New Orleans had a chance 30 years ago, when it had its first brush with the saltwater wedge. But when the threat disspitated, so did the will to make changes.

RUNE: In many instances that there isn't that longer term perspective … far too frequently what I see is that it's solely a focus on initial cost.

HALLE: He says it’s the job of water utilities to take a forward-looking approach. To be proactive.

RUNE: To look 50 years off into the future or 100 years into the future.

HALLE: Wait too long and the infrastructure a community needs might not be ready when the salt water comes knocking. As we all know, these projects take a long time between planning, design and construction.

RUNE: It doesn't happen in years. It happens on the order of decades. 

HALLE: Which is what we see in Plaquemines. The big updates that Mitch, the council member, talked about won’t be able to help them through the current crisis. But The hope is, they’ll be in place before the next time.

Back at the bar in Venice, JT and Kristen talk about the future of the parish. This time, it took the threat of the saltwater reaching New Orleans for their region to finally get the attention it needed.

JT:  We're neglected. I mean bar none. It's just that simple. 

HALLE: I ask if they think that neglect contributed to this crisis.

KRISTEN:  I think that probably so. Wouldn't you agree?

JT: Well, you can't avoid the saltwater intrusion, that's mother nature. 

KRISTEN: Right, but you should say..JT: But what you can avoid is the response to the intrusion.

HALLE: I tell them about my conversation with Mitch and the parish’s big plans to fix the water system. JT is skeptical. They’ve had problems for so long, he doesn’t trust that the parish will actually take care of the problem

JT: I've seen it for three decades, continuously get worse, continuously have more problems.

HALLE: Kristen is more optimistic. She says she has high hopes that people like Mitch will improve the quality of life for those living so far south. She has to have hope… because she doesn’t plan to live anywhere else.

KRISTEN: I have a life sentence down here. This is my business, well, my father's business, but it will be mine. So, of course, I'm praying that they're going to do something so we can keep running.

HALLE: Things had already started to look up for Kristen. At her house, the tap water had begun to freshen up.

KRISTEN: it didn't taste like salt when I brush my teeth. 

HALLE: The days of bottled water are coming to a close. Hopefully, for good.

<<music transition>> 

CARLYLE: In the months since Halle visited Plaquemines Parish, the saltwater wedge has stuck around, but it’s not going upstream. So New Orleans is safe, for now.

HALLE: This year, We hit the crisis point first. But unfortunately, saltwater intrusion is coming for coastal communities across the country. Like we mentioned, seas are rising in coastal Louisiana faster than anywhere else in the country. But the second fastest is the mid-Atlantic. And saltwater intrusion doesn’t just impact drinking water.

CARLYLE: The silent creep of saltwater inland is threatening the foundation of our food system: agriculture.

HALLE: Next we bring you a story from the coast of North Carolina, where WFAE’s David Boraks visited farmers already grappling with what happens when saltwater comes for their crops.

ACT TWO

[open with AMBI - driving]

It's flat here in this part of North Carolina - pancake flat. I'm driving on an arrow-straight two-lane road lined with fields of soybeans, wheat, corn and vegetables. The only thing standing taller than the crops are the occasional grain elevators and conveyors dotting the landscape. I'm in Hyde County, a coastal county in the northeastern corner of the state.

I’m heading to meet up with Ray Tooley. He's a fourth-generation farmer, middle-aged, wearing sunglasses and work pants. He's grown the family business. But he knows it's threatened by the warming climate and changing weather patterns.

0603TOOLEY2 (0:14)  - This is a one- to five-foot above sea level area. So as you can tell, being that low, sea level rise has a lot to do with what happens here. 

Ray's farm is near the Pamlico Sound, a body of water between the mainland and the chain of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. Like most of the farms here, this land was once wetlands. But in the 20th century people drained the wetlands for farming. The Blacklands they named it. It was perfect, they thought - flat, with super fertile soil. It's been said this is some of richest farmland in the United States – different from the hard red clay found inland in North Carolina.

But now, the ocean is trying to take these fields back. Sea level has risen about a foot in the past century, bringing more frequent floods - and saltwater intrusion. Looking across Ray's fields, I see patches of bare dirt, where the salt water makes planting impossible.

0603TOOLEY3 (0:) - Well, this is a peninsula. It's a little peninsula that sticks out here into the head of the Pamlico Sound. We have as much estuarine area for spawning seafoods as any landmass up and down North Carolina. You know, there's a whole lot of little creeks and stuff that make up in here. 

Along with those creeks are miles of straight, narrow drainage ditches. They were dug to drain the wetlands that were here and create these fields. But now it's the other way around. They're straight shots into the fields – delivering the salt water that's now creeping underground through the water table. Salt water also arrives with higher tides and washes over Ray's fields during storms. He's had to give up some of his land to farming altogether or switch to new crops, like cotton. It's better with salt.

0603TOOLEY1 (0:33) - If you actually get an established stand of it, it can tolerate it and be a profitable crop, where soybeans and corn, you might get a stand of it, but the actual crop, it won't ever be a profitable one.

I leave Tooley's farm and head east to Englehard, on the other side of the county. I drive alongside Lake Mattamuskeet, one of the largest natural lakes in the East. I can barely see across it. Farmers once tried to drain it, too, for farming. The quality of the soil at its bottom is said to be some of the best in the world. The tiny town of Englehard is right on Pamlico Sound, and even more susceptible to storm surges and tides.

[0602PUGHyardgreeting-ambi - sound of Earl Pugh pulling up in his pickup and greeting

Earl Pugh drives up in his pickup.

DAVID: "Hi there - I'm David Boraks … 

EARL:  Earl Pugh 

We're meeting in his farmyard, where tractors and pickup trucks are lined up beneath a huge metal-roofed shelter. Earl is bearded, in his early 70s, wearing a hat that reads "Ag Carolina Farm Credit" across the front.

I ask him what it's like to live here.

060222PUGH-loveit - I love it. You know, we're 75 miles from a Walmart. That doesn't bother me. I like the peace and quiet. I mean, we don't have a stoplight in Hyde County.

Earl's family has a long history here.

060222PUGH-history - My grandfather started farming in the 1920s. And he farmed grain and potatoes and he grew some vegetables back in the 30s and 40s. 

Earl’s father also farmed this land, before passing it down. And now, Earl’s son runs the business, the fourth generation of Pughs to farm here.

060222PUGH-wegrow - We grow corn for grain,  soybeans, cotton, we grow red potatoes and Yukon potatoes for fresh market. Mattamuskeet sweet onions, green beans and broccoli.

Like Ray Tooley, Earl has one of the county's biggest operations. Their 7,000 acres include land leased from other farmers who have left the business, often because of the difficulties of working the land. Many small farms here have gone away. Earl doesn't want to see that happen to his land. Keeping it productive is a never-ending battle with the encroaching wetlands. But he also knows wetlands are important to the county's fishing industry. And they keep pollution out of the sound. They are also Mother Nature’s buffer from hurricanes and storms.

060222PUGH-enviro - I feel like farmers are environmentalists.  I mean, people don't look at us as environmentalists. But I do. I believe we need to preserve our wetlands. But we, we need to preserve our farmland too.

Earl isn't getting rich, but with a lot of hard work, the business prospers. He and his family can afford to fight for its future, such as putting in tide gates designed to keep out the salt water.

Not surprisingly, the Pugh farm is flat, with fields separated by the long, narrow drainage ditches. They're important for draining the fields after big rains, but that's also where the salt water is coming from. He offers me a tour of the farm, so we hop into his late-model white 4-door pickup and head into the fields

And as I saw on Ray’s farm, some of Earl’s fields are also already affected by the creep of ocean water.

0602PUGH4 () This is a cotton field. And as you look down the field, you can see the cotton is coming up and then there's several spots on this end of the field where you see just barren land where … and it's spotty. That's from saltwater intrusion.

These fields are barely above sea level.

0602PUGH5 - 

EARL: We have a high water table, this land is very low, we're about 18 inches above sea level. 

DAVID: Wow. 

EARL: And  the Pamlico Sound, is about a less than a mile to the east of us. Now there's some water in these ditches that are rainwater. But if you see some of the bigger ditches or canals around here, that is actually salt water. And that saltwater is filtrating through the land. And it's it's just … the salt sterilizes soil.

Earl doesn't talk about climate change or sea level rise, but he's worried about salt water and the rising Pamlico Sound. Scientists project a foot of sea level rise here by 2050. If that happens, almost a third of the county's land could become wetlands. And Earl's farm … that would also be under water.

Pugh says it's always been a problem. He doesn't mention climate change, but knows things are changing.

0602PUGH2 (0:05)  So it's nothing new. It just seems to be getting a little bit worse all the time. 

And I will I'll tell you know and show us somebody what we do to try to stop this saltwater. We try to stop it as close to the source as we can with tide gate.

So what's a farmer to do? Ray and Earl told me they use three primary tactics for fighting saltwater intrusion and sea level rise:

  • They can install tide gates, like Earl did. 
  • They can plant salt-tolerant crops that still make a profit
  • Or they can put some of their fields into a federal conservation program. That pays them to stop farming and return fields to a more natural state, letting the wetlands migrate inland. Scientists say that may even build up the land and fight sea level rise. And those wetlands store a whole lotta carbon, which is important for slowing global warming.  

Back at Ray Tooley's farm, he takes me to see a flood gate and pump, one of many he uses to keep out salt water from storms and high tides. It cost tens of thousands of dollars to install, but Ray says it's just one of the ways he's had to change how he farms.
060322RAY-pump

RAY: There's nothing that we can do about that, you know, long term that that's gonna happen. We just got to learn to adapt as much as we can. 

DAVID: And what does adaptation mean?

RAY: Well, just like putting in these structures. Thirty-forty years ago, we didn't have to have this. 

DAVID: And this is what?

RAY: This is actually a pump ... we have floodgates that control the water.

The floodgates let out runoff from the fields, but close when flooding or storm surges try to get in.

When salt becomes a chronic problem, farmers can switch up their crops, as Ray has, putting cotton in place of corn or soybeans. But scientists are also helping, by looking for new varieties that can handle salt. Researchers with North Carolina State University recently did a field experiment to find out which soybean varieties are most salt tolerant - and still profitable. I asked Andrea Gibbs what they found. She's an agricultural extension agent for Hyde County and helped lead the study.

1103GIBBS2 (0:24)the salt excluders did help in those moderately salty areas. The yield was still not near what the farmer would like it to be, but they are helpful. 

But when salt does contaminate fields, when even these salt-tolerant crops won’t grow, the government is a last-ditch option. State and federal conservation programs pay them to let those areas revert to wetlands. Earl Pugh has land in conservation. He tells me it's good for the environment and still earns them a few dollars,

0602PUGH3 (0:13) - On good land, the crops are a lot better than a conservation easement. Where your conservation easement looks enticing is where you have marginal … or land that doesn't produce very well.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture pays only $100 to $200 an acre for conservation easements … But Tooley tells me that's far less than farmers can make by keeping it in cultivation.

0603TOOLEY4 (0:10) - According to the crop, it might produce $1,000 an acre. 

If all else fails, farmers may have to abandon their fields. And that's already happening. Farms in Hyde County are disappearing.

Andrea Gibbs estimates there are about 80 farms in the county now. That's down more than a third in the past decade or so. As smaller farmers face economic difficulties, they're selling or leasing their lands to larger farmers who are better equipped to deal with price fluctuations - and climate change. Or, if they can’t sell, their land goes out of cultivation altogether.

As saltwater intrusion and sea level rise worsen in the decades ahead, there are plenty of reasons to worry.

Jobs will go away. And, says Gibbs, so will crop land that's needed to feed the rest of us.

1103GIBBS3: "You know I always tell people, the farmland around Raleigh is going away very quickly … they're losing farmland all the time. 

The problem is we could lose Hyde County, too, some of the most productive farmland in the state.

060822CORBETT "The salting of the fields isn't going to go away.

That’s Reide Corbett. He’s the executive director of the Coastal Studies Institute at East Carolina University. He says climate change not only affects what can be grown here, but also threatens the land's viability. He says we should start planning now for what's coming in 30 years, when the sea is a foot higher.

060822CORBETT - You know, we need to think of innovative ways of either changing that, changing what we're actually farming for, looking for ways, different ways, that we might be able to utilize this land, so the communities here can continue to make a living and we can think about the economic engine associated with northeast North Carolina. We shouldn't just ignore what's happening, because it's not going to change. It's not going to go away, it is likely to only get worse."

For Hyde County, rising waters could spell continuing decline. It's already among North Carolina's poorest counties. Besides farming, there are some jobs in commercial fishing and tourism, but not much else. While reporting this story, I drove miles and miles of empty backroads … all dotted with abandoned and crumbling houses, stores and gas stations. Only about 4000 people live here now. The county’s lost nearly 30% of its population in the past dozen years.

I talk to Pugh about what that means for the future of Hyde County. He's also an elected county commissioner and he talks about wanting to create jobs. But he tells me it's hard to recruit companies to a rural floodplain with no major highways.

060222PUGH-jobs - We get a lot of hurricanes (he says "HAIR-uh-kens) here. So you know, that's, that's well known. And companies probably don't want to come in floodplains because of insurance. … And our internet service here is, in most rural areas like we are, is not very good either. So we, you know, we have a lot of obstacles that we have to face.

Still, Earl tells me he's optimistic about the future of the family farm. His son has run it for nearly 20 years and his grandson is talking about taking it over. A fifth generation.

060222PUGH-grandson - He's working on the farm now. I mean if he's not in school, he's on the farm. And that's his goal is to come back. And one day, maybe he and his brothers and sisters will keep the farm going."

Finding new ways to farm their family land in a saltier future.

OUTRO

CARLYLE: Thanks for listening to Sea Change. This episode was hosted by me, Carlyle Calhoun, and Halle Parker. Halle and WFAE environment reporter David Boraks reported this episode. Maddie Zampanti is our sound designer. I am the managing producer.

Sea Change is a WWNO and WRKF production. We are part of the NPR Podcast Network and distributed by PRX.

To help others find our podcast, hit subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Sea Change is made possible with major support from the Gulf Research Program of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. WWNO’s Coastal Desk is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, the Meraux Foundation, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.
Carlyle Calhoun is the managing producer of Sea Change. You can reach her at: carlyle@wwno.org