Drought Imperils Drinking Water : Louisiana Fighting Salt; Contaminants Threaten Aquifer

Times Staff Writer

Near the fort where Confederate troops fought a 10-day Civil War battle against a Yankee armada headed up the Mississippi River for New Orleans, workers are struggling to combat another unwanted intruder--the salt water creeping up the drought-stricken river from the Gulf of Mexico and polluting water supplies.

Last weekend, for example, a Plaquemines Parish (county) water department work crew was feverishly constructing a makeshift pier so that barges could tie up and pump fresh water into the already contaminated Ft. Jackson reservoir to help sweeten it.

Worst in 25 Years

"I've been working for the parish for 25 years and, believe me, this is the worst situation I've ever seen," said Tommy Huff, a waterworks employee who has been putting in 18-hour days for almost a week as the salt-water peril has spread.

Plaquemines (pronounced PLACK-uh-mihns) Parish is not alone in its predicament.

Throughout the drought-withered Southeast and Midwest, community water supplies have been endangered.

Weeks without rain, together with blistering heat in many places, have drastically cut water reserves or imperiled them with contamination.

Showers Inadequate

Although some spots have recently received welcome showers or thunderstorms, meteorologists say that the rainfall is far from enough to make up for the shortages in municipal water sources.

Sudden rains "may relieve things in the cornfield or the wheat field for a spell," said Grant Goodge of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N. C., "but, in terms of the stream flow and water available for cities and municipalities, there's still a big problem."

In Ohio, one of the hardest hit states, the suburban Cleveland community of Cuyahoga Falls has deepened seven of its 15 municipal wells, dredged the Cuyahoga River channel that feeds the local water table and spent $37,000 to lay a 16-inch main from Akron's water system to provide backup pressure for emergencies. It has also imposed water conservation measures, although they are still voluntary and not mandatory, as in some Ohio cities.

Marty Miller, a state agricultural department official, said that Ohio is considering clamping statewide restrictions on water use if the problem grows worse. A 16-member state task force, appointed by Gov. Richard F. Celeste, is expected to make public its recommendations by the end of this week, Miller said.

Can't Flush Toilets

"We're not in a crisis situation yet," he said, "but our supplies are getting worrisomely low. In Columbus, for example, we've had instances where people in some exclusive housing developments have been unable to flush their toilets or run their dishwashers because of low water pressure."

As elsewhere in the drought belt, Ohioans in urban areas have seen their lawns bake and their flowers and shrubbery wither for lack of rain.

"I'm watching my lawn turn a beautiful shade of brown," said Kay Robinson of Columbus, where a mandatory ban on outdoor watering is in place. "There are a few green spots here and there--but not many."

In Dayton, an industrial city southwest of Columbus, officials are worried that declining water levels could make it easier for chemical contaminants to seep into the Miami Valley aquifer, a vast, natural underground reservoir.

Stiff Controls in Georgia

In Georgia, which is experiencing its third straight drought year, stiff water conservation measures--along with steep fines for transgressions--have been imposed on residents in a sprawling 12-county metropolitan region centered on Atlanta.

"We had one person who hooked up his garden hose to a fire hydrant," said Roy Clack, director of the Henry County building inspection department. "He was fined $1,000 and sentenced to 40 hours of community service with our water department."

State natural resources officials have also clamped down on Georgia counties that exceed their permitted allocations of water.

In Missouri, city officials in Harrisonville, a community of 7,300 residents 40 miles south of Kansas City, imposed restrictions last month on nonessential uses of water. That included a bitterly protested prohibition on the watering of livestock in three rural districts that draw their water supplies from Harrisonville.

"We had to do something drastic," Damon Bartles, the city administrator, said. "Demand had reached a point beyond which we could treat enough water."

Helped by Rainfall

A 4 1/2-inch rainfall earlier this month has permitted Harrisonville to lift the restrictions, but Bartles said: "If it doesn't rain in another two weeks, we'll put them back on."

In Louisiana, besides the $1.4-million operation to barge in fresh water from upstream for Plaquemines Parish, the Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a $2-million underwater barrier to keep the encroaching salt water from polluting New Orleans' water supplies.

The barrier, known as a "salinity control sill," will be 30 feet high and will stretch 1,200 feet along of the river bottom at a point about 40 miles south of New Orleans. Because salt water weighs more than fresh water, it tends to lie along the river bottom like sugar water in the bottom of a glass of iced tea.

Dixie Beer Threatened

Businesses that get their water from New Orlean's system--including the historic Dixie Brewing Co.--have trembled at the prospect of salt contamination.

But most residents are taking the possibility of a crisis in stride.

"I'm not really worried," said J. C. White, 36, a parking lot attendant. "People in New Orleans are basically party-goers. As long as they're grooving and can get bottled water, everything's going to be all right."

Times researchers Edith Stanley in Atlanta and Ruth Lopez in Chicago contributed to this story.

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