Louisiana is known for its losing battle against rising seas and increasingly frequent floods. It can sometimes seem like the state has too much water. But the aquifers deep beneath its swampy landscape face a critical shortage.
Groundwater levels in and around Louisiana are falling faster than almost anywhere else in the country, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. An analysis by the Investigative Reporting Workshop and WWNO/WRKF traced the problem to decades of overuse, unregulated pumping by industries and agriculture, and scant oversight or action from legislative committees rife with conflicts of interest.
Experts warn that all of these factors threaten the groundwater that nearly two-thirds of Louisianans rely on for drinking and bathing. Combined with the expected effects of climate-fueled heat and drought, it puts Louisiana on the brink of a groundwater crisis more common in Western states.
"Will restaurants no longer be able to put a giant glass of water on your table when you go in to have your seafood platter?" asks Craig Colten, a Louisiana State University professor who has studied water issues for years. "Will there be limits on how frequently you can wash your car in your driveway or water your lawn?"
Decades of overuse
Agriculture consumes more than 61% of Louisiana's groundwater. In part, that's because a centuries-old law gives landowners "ultimate dominion" over the groundwater beneath their property.
When it comes time to flood his rice fields in southwestern Louisiana, sixth-generation farmer Christian Richard just flips a switch. Within seconds, crystal clear water gurgles up a 120-foot well and shoots out a short spout, right into the field.
It's simple, easy and free.
"I think that ultimately, rice will be grown in the areas where the water is the cheapest and the most readily available," Richard says.
But the Chicot Aquifer he draws from is losing water faster than it can be replenished. It's being overdrawn by about 350 million gallons a day. And that's creating another threat: saltwater intrusion.
Overpumping reduces the downward pressure exerted by the aquifer's fresh water, giving seawater from the Gulf of Mexico room to move in and fill the void. Aquifers in other parts of the state are also dealing with saltwater intrusion, but the Chicot's proximity to the coast exacerbates the problem here, says Christine Kirchhoff, a national water resources management and policy researcher at the University of Connecticut.
"You might have a well that is functioning just fine now," Kirchhoff says, "but once salt contaminates fresh water, it's done. That's it. You no longer have that well."
Louisiana's oil and gas refineries, paper mills and other industries are other major groundwater users. Our investigation finds they draw more of it than industries in any other state except California.
Industry also has an outsized influence when it comes to regulating Louisiana's water.
"The way we've been doing it"
Most states have regional commissions that oversee their vital groundwater resources. Texas, for example, has 98.
Louisiana has just two.
That includes one in Baton Rouge, where the state Board of Ethics recently charged five of the commission's 18 members with conflicts of interest, because they are employed by companies the commission is supposed to be regulating.
At the state level, there are two legislative committees responsible for managing water. But the IRW and WWNO/WRKF investigation found more than a third of the 25 legislators who sit on them have business ties to major groundwater users.
Democratic State Rep. Denise Marcelle has been trying to draw attention to these potential conflicts for years but was told, "'This is the way we've been doing it,'" she says. "They protect the industry and not the constituents, in my opinion."
Most of the state lawmakers did not respond to repeated requests for comment, nor did Governor John Bel Edwards.
After this story first aired in Louisiana, Republican Senate Environmental Quality Committee Chairman Eddie Lambert said he was concerned about the issue. He said he may look into the problem and supports a "comprehensive study" that examines Louisiana's groundwater supply.
"Pristine drinking water should not be used by industry or agriculture," Lambert said.
At least 12 separate reports — done at taxpayers' expense over the past 70 years — have urged the state to create a comprehensive water management plan.
Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources technically oversees water, but spokesman Patrick Courreges says it can't do much. "We feel like we're right up against the edge of our regulatory authority," he says. "We're doing the best we can with what we're empowered to do."
Costly local solutions
Without leadership at the state level some communities have taken on water management themselves.
Twenty years ago, the small, northern Louisiana town of West Monroe started running out of water. The biggest user was the local paper mill, which also happened to be the biggest employer.
"People can't see the aquifer," says Terry Emory, the city's environmental quality manager. "You can't convince people in Louisiana that they're going to run out of water, because everywhere they look, they see water."
Emory and other local officials came up with a plan. They set out to expand their sewage treatment plant so it could provide water for the mill, and save the aquifer for local residents." It cost $20 million in federal and state grants, and took years to build. But now they're turning wastewater into usable water — a crisis averted.
Mark Davis, director of Tulane's Center for Environmental Law, says small towns like West Monroe wouldn't be forced to come up with expensive solutions like this if the state actually had laws that protected the groundwater. He chairs a state committee the Legislature tasked with rewriting the state's water code more than five years ago. It has yet to make any formal recommendations.
"Raw water is becoming more coveted," he says." And unless you have some kind of restrictions on how and when it can be used, essentially, you can expect someone to take it from you."
Texas, for example, has made plays for Louisiana's water for decades.
Davis says instead of leaving it to "individuals and fate" Louisiana needs laws, as other states have, to protect groundwater. "Someone should be accountable for the job."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Louisiana has a problem with too much water. The Mississippi flows through the middle of it, and parts of the coastline are sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. Yet Louisiana also has a problem with not enough water. Its supply of groundwater is shrinking. And that's happening faster than almost anywhere in the nation. Tegan Wendland has an investigation by WWNO and the Investigative Reporting Workshop.
TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Rice is a huge industry in Louisiana. And it takes a lot of water to grow it. Sixth-generation rice farmer Christian Richard slides on his rubber boots and stomps out to one of his vast fields on a sunny, cool day to show us how he floods them. He flips a switch.
CHRISTIAN RICHARD: So this is a deep-water well.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)
WENDLAND: That is some really beautiful, crystal-clear water. And how much do you pay for this water?
RICHARD: I do not pay for the water.
WENDLAND: In just one minute, 1,200 gallons of this crystal-clear water flows from a pipe set deep down in the Chicot Aquifer. And it's free because of a centuries-old law called ultimate dominion that lets him use as much as he wants.
RICHARD: I think that, ultimately, rice will be grown in the areas where the water is the cheapest and the most readily available.
WENDLAND: But the Chicot Aquifer is losing water faster than it can be replenished. It's being overdrawn by about 350 million gallons a day. All of that pumping is causing a deep underground depression that threatens to inundate the whole aquifer with saltwater, which would ruin it.
CRAIG COLTEN: We have built our water consumption based on the notion we won't have any real disruptions to supplies.
WENDLAND: Louisiana State University professor Craig Colten says this is part of a much larger problem. All over the state, groundwater levels are plummeting. The reasons are sweeping, decades of overuse from both agriculture and industry, lack of oversight and legislative committees rife with conflicts of interest. Plus, there's the threat of climate change bringing higher temperatures and more severe droughts. Colten says, without better management, that could spell the kind of crisis that's more common in the dry west.
COLTEN: Will restaurants no longer, you know, put a giant glass of water on your table when you're going to have your seafood platter? Will there be limits on how frequently you can wash your car in your driveway or water your lawn?
WENDLAND: Our analysis finds that industries like oil refineries, plastic and paper factories use more groundwater per person, per day in Louisiana than in any other U.S. state or territory. Generous tax incentives make the state a good place for business and so does access to free, clean water.
COLTEN: It's not an infinite resource. We continue to show that we can consume more than is available.
WENDLAND: It's hard to regulate if you don't even know how much you have. And due to decades of neglect, officials here have no idea. Meantime, industry has an outsized influence. There are two legislative committees responsible for managing Louisiana's water. But more than a third of the 25 legislators who sit on them have business ties to major groundwater users. State Representative Denise Marcelle of Baton Rouge says that's a conflict of interest.
DENISE MARCELLE: They protect the industry and not the constituents, in my opinion.
WENDLAND: None of those lawmakers responded to repeated requests for comment, nor did Governor John Bel Edwards. At least 12 separate reports done at taxpayers' expense over the past 70 years have urged the state to create a comprehensive water management plan. The Department of Natural Resources technically oversees water. But spokesman Patrick Courreges says it doesn't have much actual authority.
PATRICK COURREGES: We feel like we're right up against the edge of our regulatory authority in what we do. We're doing the best we can with what we're empowered to do.
WENDLAND: Louisiana's urban populations are growing and so is agriculture and industry. That's creating conflict over water, but also some creative local solutions. In the northern part of the state, West Monroe, population 12,600, is a paper mill town. That became a problem in the 1990s when the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, a giant underground reservoir that also provides water for parts of Texas, started running dry partly because the paper mill was using too much. Terry Emory is environmental quality manager at the West Monroe Wastewater Treatment Plant.
TERRY EMORY: You can't convince people in Louisiana that they're going to run out of water because everywhere they look, they see water.
WENDLAND: So they had to come up with a solution. They decided to save the aquifer for local residents and clean up the sewage water for the paper mill. Emory takes us up a catwalk. And we look down on giant vats of water discolored by algae.
Wow. This is really something. I can't believe that you make this green water, basically, drinkable.
EMORY: Yeah (laughter). It is kind of hard to believe.
WENDLAND: It took years and $20 million in federal and state grants to build the wastewater recycling plant. And it worked. Water levels started to bounce back up. And the biggest employer in town stayed put. But Mark Davis, director of Tulane's Center for Environmental Law, says small towns like West Monroe wouldn't be forced to come up with expensive solutions like this if the state actually had laws that protected the groundwater.
MARK DAVIS: Raw water is becoming more coveted. And unless you have some kind of restrictions on how and when it can be used, you can expect someone to take it from you.
WENDLAND: Texas, for example, has made plays for Louisiana's water for decades. Davis says Louisiana needs laws like other states have to protect its groundwater. Otherwise, the future is in the hands of...
DAVIS: Individuals and fate. Whether you do the best job or the worst job, someone should be accountable for the job.
WENDLAND: As it stands, it's nobody's job to protect Louisiana's valuable drinking water.
For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans.
INSKEEP: Austin Ramsey of the Investigative Reporting Workshop contributed to that story.
(SOUNDBITE OF HALIFAX PIER SONG, "STRANGE NEWS FROM ANOTHER STAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.