The severe drought has allowed salt water to push north into waterways used for irrigation in southwest Louisiana, leaving rice farmers with the dilemma of letting the rice die for want of water or hurting the crop with too much salt.

Some farmers use deep wells to flood rice fields, but many coastal farmers pump water out of canals and bayous, which have dropped to such low levels that salt water has begun pushing north into the waterways, LSU AgCenter rice specialist Johnny Saichuk said.

“The marsh is getting saltier and then getting into canals and streams,” he said. “It’s going upstream instead of downstream.”

He said the problem has been compounded by hurricane damage to water-control structures built to stop saltwater from moving inland.

“It’s reaching levels of salt content that will kill rice,” Saichuk said.

Vermilion Parish is seeing some of the worst effects, with roughly a third of the 50,000 acres of rice planted there at risk for saltwater damage, said Staurt Gauthier, the parish’s LSU AgCenter agent.

Some of that acreage is just beginning to recover from salt water pushed over coastal farm land by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008.

“In some cases, it takes years to wash itself out,” Gauthier said.

Saichuk said rice, especially if its mature, might survive a dose of salt water, but the salt left behind on the land could hurt crops for years to come.

Clarence Berken, who farms rice in Jefferson Davis Parish, said he has stopped pumping the salty water on a few hundred acres of fields.

“If you are going to lose the crop anyway, why put more salt on the ground and compound the problem,” he said.

Farmers in southwest Louisiana have dealt with saltwater issues in the past, but Berken said this year has been the worst since he began farming in 1974.

Vermilion Parish rice farmer Burton Hebert said he is taking his chances on the crop, despite the salt water.

Hebert said he already has paid out 95 percent of this year’s cost for the 850 acres that he farms.

The fields look good, he said, but the effect of the salt water might not be known until harvest time, when he will find out whether the rice fully developed inside the hull.

“Your crop will look beautiful, until you try to cut it,” Hebert said.

Saichuk said the solution, at least for the short term, is lots of rain.

“The only way we can get rid of it is to flush it out,” he said.

The few scattered showers this week are not expected to help much, Gauthier said, because the area had been about 15 inches below normal rainfall for this time of year.

“For the most part, I haven’t heard a lot of relief,” he said.

A long-term fix could involve diverting water into the Mermentau River Basin from the Red River in the north to push back saltwater, Saichuk said.

Tat’s an expensive option and there are no plans to move forward on such a major project, Saichuk said.