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State of the State: Water the top topic for Louisiana ag in 2023

Saltwater intrusion, drought in 2023 prepare Louisiana ag for a better 2024.

Raney Rapp, Senior Writer

April 30, 2024

3 Min Read
Commissioner Strain
Mike Strain, Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry at the 2024 Louisiana Women in Agriculture Conference.Raney Rapp

Water is both a blessing and a curse for farmers in the fertile soils of the Mississippi Delta. Quality, quantity and availability see silent shifts from year to year and add to the thrilling challenge of growing good crops in one of nature’s most unpredictable environments.

“Water is king,” said Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain. “What did Mark Twain say about water? ‘Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting’ – think about that.”

During his address to Louisiana Women in Agriculture, Strain’s top challenges and opportunities for the state’s farmers and ranchers all boiled down to one singular topic – water.

“You get into the heartland of America and there are massive, vast amounts of crops but those aquifers are limited,” Strain said. “Where is the future of agriculture? You can see it right on the river systems where we have water.”

Louisiana water

Specifically, the water-driven future of agriculture lies in Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, which according to Strain, is the largest row crop district in the United States. The district, which encompasses most of the rural northeastern portion of the state, faced a reckoning in 2023 as saltwater intrusion in the Mississippi River gained enough ground to give irrigators pause. 

“For the first time ever, we were fighting saltwater coming up the Mississippi River,” Strain said. “It was moving at a mile and a half per day, and it reached 68 miles up the river. We couldn’t stop it.”

The risk of saltwater intrusion in the Mississippi was a calculated one, carefully analyzed before a Congressionally authorized enlargement of the river’s navigation channel from 45 ft. to 50 ft. Previously, the balance of fresh water to saltwater at the mouth of the Mississippi was well-maintained, although a low pressure system in the Gulf in 2023 and subsequent drought made way for saltwater to travel upstream.

“Believe it or not, saltwater will run under fresh water and that’s why we see saltwater intrusion all along the coast,” Strain said. “The big fight we had were the timetables we were facing for the point where there would be no water for New Orleans and everyone else down river.”

The solution to the problem was an underwater saltwater barrier sill constructed in the center of the river nearly 64 miles inland, in order to reduce saltwater flow while continuing to allow freshwater movement.

2024 climate

In addition to the in-river upgrade, Strain said a shift in climate from El Nino patterns to La Nina would greatly change the 2024 growing season for Louisiana farmers.

“We need the shift in these weather patterns to La Nina to bring more water,” Strain said. “For the first time in generations there was not a single hurricane or tropical storm or any moisture to be found. Normally 65% of all storms bring rain and hit our coast.”

The low-pressure system along the coast sat for many months and blocked rainfall, extending drought from April through December. Delays with Louisiana’s drought map creation and reporting exacerbated the problem, creating a lag for drought-related payments and further frustrating farmers.

Strain said he’s hopeful a new state climatologist and new state meteorologist will help expedite the reporting process in the future, especially essential national reports and programs. 

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About the Author(s)

Raney Rapp

Senior Writer, Delta Farm Press

Delta Farm Press Senior Writer

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