New Orleans — Consider this: It’s spring 2025 and Louisiana officials are preparing to open three diversions on the lower Mississippi River so fresh water and sediment can reach wetlands struggling to stay ahead of sea-level rise.
But the river has dropped to a record low, and the Port of New Orleans warns taking so much water from the river will ground ships downstream of Venice.
At the same time, salty Gulf water moving upstream against the low river threatens municipal water supplies, as well as cooling intakes at oil refineries, chemical plants and power stations. They want the diversions to stay shut.
Meanwhile, all three uses of the river could be disrupted if Arkansas is allowed to open a structure on the river to send millions of gallons of water to Western states willing to pay top dollar to relieve a drought devastating farms and cities.
So, who decides what is the most important use of the river water?
If that happened today, no one.
“Right now, there is no one authorized to make that call,” said Mark Davis, director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University. “Nobody has been told, ‘You’re the referee on using this river.’ ”
The Mississippi River, with a watershed critical to the economic life of 31 states, has no single working water budget, but instead is tapped on a first-come basis.
While some rivers, most notably the Colorado, have long been subject to legal agreements parceling out water to its users, the Mississippi has been left to a laissez-faire style of management: Each state takes what it wants as the river flows inside its borders.
That lack of oversight, long a concern for southeast Louisiana, is growing into a mortal fear due to this scientific consensus: The region’s only hope of staying above the 4.3 feet of sea-level rise expected by century’s end is to get the river’s fresh water and sediment back into the region’s sinking marshes. So having 30 different, self-interested management plans preceding Louisiana’s needs could be a prescription for disaster, coastal scientists say.
“We’ve been living with a management system for the river developed in the 1930s, and that’s not the world the river has to serve today,” said Paul Kemp, a geologist and coastal researcher at LSU. “There are many more users, and different users than we had in the 1930s.
“And I think recent events are helping convince more people we need a new type of management for the river.”
This story was reported by The Lens ( http://thelensnola.org/ ), an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans.