Health Policy

We’re All In The Hot Seat Now.


It’s not that easy living in the “Big Easy” these days and co-existing with a world dominated by water concerns. When Times-Picayune gossip columnist Betty Guillaud (as the folklore goes) “coined New Orleans’ undisputed nickname” in the 1960’s, it was a lifestyle eponym meant to favorably contrast life in “The Big Easy” with hard living in “The Big Apple.”

That was well before August 23, 2004, when the levies failed to hold back the Gulf waters, and 1,392 souls perished leaving two names to last in infamy – Katrina and Brownie, of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” fame.

Now it’s not as if it’s been all smooth sailing for New York City and water. I mean, look at the history. When the British overran the Dutch in 1667, one of the first priorities was to dig the first public well and include a marvelous technologic attachment – a hand pump. That was in front of an old fort at Bowling Green, near Battery Park.

But by the early 1700s, the absence of a sewage system and saltwater intrusion from the Hudson and East Rivers, plus a crushing population explosion, had foiled the clean water supply. The solution – temporary at best – haul in fresh groundwater, in limited quantities, from Brooklyn.

It was hard to tell in that century what was worse, the regular cholera outbreaks that claimed 3,500 lives in one single year, or the catastrophic fires burning without response like the one that destroyed a quarter of the city structures in 1776. So much for independence day celebrations.

The city’s response was to form a regulatory and operational agency, the Manhattan Company, under one Aaron Burr, to build out infrastructure with public funds. Excess funds were used to start a bank, whose name may be familiar to you – the Chase Manhattan Bank. As you might imagine, the leaders of the bank were better at making money than providing citizens with clean safe water.

But by 1837, with disease rampant and supplies dwindling, the city went all in on a technologic solution. With the help of 4000 immigrants beginning in 1837, the city built a dam six miles above the link between the Croton and Hudson Rivers, creating a five mile reservoir on 400 acres containing 660 million gallons of water. As the water collected, they also build the 41 mile Old Croton Aqueduct from the reservoir to the Great Lawn in Central Park, with the first water arriving by gravity 1/4 inch every 100 feet. Just five years later, on July 4, 1842, the first drops arrived accompanied by fireworks.

Nowadays, water engineers constantly test and repair a system that now delivers 3.8 billion liters of drinking water to over 9 million New Yorkers each day. They also work to structurally address, in this age of global warming, encroaching salt water intrusion. But if they are ever tempted to feel sorry for themselves, or utter the words, “It’s not easy,” they need only to turn their gaze southwest to “The Big Easy.”

Let’s begin in Plaquemines Parish on the southern edge of the state. An intense and prolonged drought and massive evaporation during a long hot summer have promoted saltwater intrusion of the Mississippi River, and led to drinking water advisories since June forcing the state to provide bottled water to residents. There’s not much room for error where the Mississippi meets the Gulf. Chronic dredging of the river has left the mouth below sea level. Add to this that the river’s flow is down to 130,000 cubic feet per second, close to the lowest flow ever recorded.

The salt water is on the move north, detected now 66 miles upriver. Professor Mark Davis at Tulane’s Center for Environmental Law has been raising the alarm for several months. He says, “The amount of river it takes to push the Gulf of Mexico back and keep economies going needs to be appreciated, not just along the river, but nationally. This river does not have lots of water to share. The power of the river is what keeps salt water out,”

Up a ways, at West Feliciana Parish, a sandbar became so obstructive to the river on July 21 that tugboats have been required to allow barges to negotiate the narrowing pass. The “salt water wedge”, as it is termed, has now led Gov. John Bel Edwards to ask for a federal emergency declaration. The encroaching sea water not only fouls drinking water, but also destroys piping infrastructure due to its corrosive effects, and the raised salinity levels undermine the effectiveness of water treatment plants. It also harms crops and sickens live stock.

The dense “saltwater wedge” travels below fresh water above. This is the basis of the Army Corps of Engineers temporary solution – a strategically placed underwater levee anchored to the rivers bottom to obstruct upward advancing sea water. But the continued drought means the levee will be breached in days, not months. A second temporizer is to add up to 36 million gallons of fresh water a day to water treatment plants to dilute the briny water influx and allow the facilities to work effectively.

Pulitzer Prize winning social philosopher, Philip Kennicott, offers scant reassurance in a comprehensive review of how “the dark future of climate change” has undermined “the dream of air conditioning. Chuck full of unintended consequences, he disturbingly reminds his readers that “Making internal spaces cooler for humans means making external environments hotter for all living things…”  Drawing on images of Mars colonies that are “dependent on perpetual sources of oxygen and water,” he dares to “remind us of our frailty…as the danger zone for excess heat creeps into once clement zones, (and) the air conditioner joins the furnace as an essential system for ever more people.”

Kennicott’s closing line uncomfortably mirrors those of the Army Corps of Engineers and Governor John Bel Edwards. And whether you’re dealing with “saltwater wedges” in “The Big Easy”, or Canadian fire-driven orange skies in “The Big Apple,” citizens everywhere best heed his warning. He writes, “We want to live beyond or without weather, because the weather we made is killing us.

Mike Magee MD is a Medical Historian and regular contributor to THCB. He is the author of CODE BLUE: Inside America’s Medical Industrial Complex. (Grove/2020)