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In Louisiana rice: Rain helps fight saltwater intrusion

Scattered heavy rains in early June have helped fight southwest Louisiana drought conditions, but rice farmers in the area say they're still worried about saltwater intrusion, especially in the lower reaches of Vermilion Parish.

“We need more rain or we'll see more problems (with saltwater) in another couple of weeks,” said R. Ernest Girouard Jr. of Kaplan, La., a rice farmer who heads the Louisiana Rice Research Board.

Howard Cormier, the LSU AgCenter's county agent in Vermilion Parish, said the early June rains brought some relief from saltwater intrusion, but even more rain would help the situation further.

About 1.5 inches of rain fell June 2 in Abbeville, La., and some parts of northern Vermilion Parish were drenched with 3 inches to 5 inches of showers, Cormier said.

“Anything we get is going to help. Even if it doesn't help with the saltwater, it's going to help with the drought,” Cormier said.

Girouard and Cormier said rice farmers battling saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway should monitor saltwater content in their fields and in nearby ditches from which they pump water for irrigation.

Levels above 100 grains per gallon can harm young rice plants, and some parts of lower Vermilion are seeing those sorts of readings. Salt content at that level can harm rice plants before tillering — before the growth of new shoots on the plant. Most rice was at tillering or near that stage, Cormier said.

“Rain will stave off major problems, but we need a little more,” Cormier added. “A lot of the rainfall we've had has been absorbed, because the fields were so dry. We need 4 to 6 inches of additional rain.”

Still, Cormier said his surveys indicated no damage to the rice crop.

The Lafayette, La., area got slightly more than 1 inch of rain June 2, a welcome relief, but not enough to signal an end to southwest Louisiana's lingering drought. Only 0.19 inch of rain was recorded at the Lafayette airport for the entire month of May — a level far below normal.

Forecasts call for the usual summertime pattern of scattered afternoon showers caused by a combination of high daytime temperatures and moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. But whether rain falls on a particular field is a hit or miss proposition, the experts point out.

Pumping even slightly salty water on rice fields can cause long-term problems because the salt grains will settle out and remain concentrated in fields long after the water has evaporated, Cormier said.

North winds have been blowing salt water out of the Mermentau Basin in lower Vermilion Parish and that is allowing fresh water in from White Lake, which helps rice farmers, Cormier added. Additional rainfall would also flush fields, further reducing the threat of salt remaining in the soil, he said.

“Even another inch or inch-and-a-half of rain would help,” Cormier said.

Saltwater levels vary widely in lower Vermilion Parish and elsewhere along the south Louisiana coast. Farmers who want the latest readings can go the Internet for updates via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (See this Web site for the latest from numerous test points:

On June 2, readings at Forked Island, La., were 38 grains per gallon, down from 50 grains per gallon on May 24. At the Leland Bowman Lock-East, the reading was 137 grains per gallon, down from 144 grains per gallon on May 30.

On June 3, the readings at Schooner Bayou Eastside were 156 grains per gallon, the same as May 30 but down from a reading of 194 grains per gallon three weeks earlier.

Randy McClain (225-578-2263 or [email protected]) writes for the LSU AgCenter.

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