Salt-soaked Fields Show Some Improvement

John K. Saichuk  |  4/10/2006 9:03:32 PM

South Louisiana rice fields contaminated with salt from Hurricane Rita’s storm surge have shown some improvements, although not as much as expected, and salinity levels actually have increased in some sugarcane fields.

In sugarcane fields affected by the storm surge, testing has shown salt levels actually have increased in recent weeks. In some areas the level climbed from 6,000 parts per million just after the storm to 8,000 parts per million in recent testing at soil depths up to 3 inches, according to Howard “Sonny” Viator, LSU AgCenter professor and coordinator of the Iberia Research Station in Jeanerette.

Viator said hurricanes Rita and Katrina caused a 24 percent loss to the state’s sugarcane crop.

“Hurricanes caused more damage to sugarcane by flooding the crop than by the accumulation of salts on the soil,” Viator said. Tidal surges affected or flooded about 37,500 acres, he said.

Viator said experts are not certain about the effects of salt levels on future cane crops. “We can only speculate at this time,” he said.

As for rice, LSU AgCenter agronomist Jason Bond said rice fields still need rainfall for a good flushing. He’s not comfortable advising farmers that their crop will be safe, even if it’s planted in soil with salt less than 1,000 parts per million. “All we’ve got is seedling data at this point, and too many factors can interact to cause damage,” Bond said.

LSU AgCenter rice specialist Johnny Saichuk said experts had anticipated that seasonal winter rains would rinse the salt from the soil. He hopes by this time next year most areas should be back to normal. But the highly contaminated areas could be years away from planting.

Saichuk said he has talked with crop insurance agents, and it appears some coverage may be available for farmers who cannot plant their crops because of salty soil.

Bruce Schultz

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