Saltwater leak threatens rice crops

By Theresa Schmidt - bio | email

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - Thousands of acres of rice in three parishes may be at risk because of a leak in a water control structure that is allowing saltwater to invade irrigation canals. Without rain or repairs or both the situation may get dire.

It's midway through the growing season for rice farmers in Southwest Louisiana who rely on a network of waterways they use for irrigation. Off highway 27 the rice looks as it should this time of year... But an influx of saltwater could mean disaster for the crops. Explains Dr. John Denison, "Saltwater is toxic to rice at high levels and the salinity levels in the water are fast approaching levels that will decrease production and could be toxic."

The saltwater is coming from a failure in a drainage control structure called the Black Bayou culvert. It's allowing a constant flow of saltwater from Calcasieu Lake into the waterways used for irrigation.   Denison is the agricultural operations manager for Sweetlake Land and Oil Company which has about four thousand acres of rice irrigated with surface water. "Without any rain it will be very dire very soon," said Denison.

A diver went below to examine the breach in the culvert. Sweetlake's field operations manager Doug Miller says they hope repairs can be made before it's too late. "These culverts here were designed for only one way flow of water out during flooding conditions. But currently there's a leak in the structure that's allowing the saltwater to move back in. It's flowing at a very rapid rate due to the lower water levels pulling the tides back into the system in conjunction with the farmers and the demand for irrigation water sucking the saltwater back into the system. We've documented elevated salinity levels up to fifty miles from the structure."

So what they need is for mother nature to help out with plenty of rain and freshwater to clear out the salt. Otherwise they need the government to repair the water control structure as soon as possible. "We need to slow that down if not stop it," said Denison. "Then we need to hope for, pray for rain."

Without a remedy the rising salt levels could also result in wetlands loss. No word yet from the State Department of Natural Resources but Denison says the state is committed to fixing the leak.

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