Lawmakers Sidestep Groundwater Crisis — For Decades

Mar 15, 2021
Originally published on March 12, 2021 12:58 pm

BATON ROUGE La. — State Rep. Denise Marcelle was born and raised in Baton Rouge. Like many residents, she’s always appreciated the crystal clear water here — drawn from deep in the Southern Hills Aquifer System.

“We have some of the best water in the world,” she said.

But for years, Marcelle, who is a Democrat, has warned of a looming crisis in the aquifer. Energy companies and big industry are drawing vast amounts of water. And the withdrawals are allowing salt water to move in, threatening the main source of drinking water for a growing population of more than half a million.

Marcelle has been a state legislator since 2016, and her first piece of legislation directly tackled the city’s imminent water crisis.

“Why not do what’s right for people?” she asked.

Her legislation died in committee. So she tried again the next year and the next and the next and the next.

But all five of her bills died in the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

More than a quarter of members of that House committee have direct financial ties to major groundwater users, according to a database the IRW and WWNO/WRKF created. It uses financial disclosure statements and campaign finance reports for the 25 lawmakers now on the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee and the Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee. All but three of the committee members have recently accepted money from major groundwater users.

“I found out that there are certain issues, and groundwater is one of them, that legislators refuse to touch because of large industry here,” Marcelle said. “Those committees are stacked so that you can’t get anything out of them that a certain group of people don’t want out of them.”

The Wrong Kind of Water

Louisiana has lots of water. But most of it is surface water — in rivers, lakes, bayous and from rain. It’s costly to treat to make it safe to drink, so most Louisianans and many industries, including agriculture, use groundwater instead.

At least three of the state’s 11 major aquifers are being drained faster than they can be replenished. The IRW and WWNO/WRKF investigation reveals that four are in danger of saltwater intrusion, a result of overdrawing. Hydrologists say that once that happens, an aquifer can be ruined.

State leaders have been aware of the problem for decades.

The Legislature has commissioned at least 12 taxpayer-funded studies since the early 1900s, and nearly all came to the same conclusion: The state should create a comprehensive water management plan and gather more data to inform future policies.

But no plan has been passed.

Many of the House and Senate committee members are farmers who use groundwater to irrigate their crops. Others work for oil and gas contractors who rely heavily on groundwater for industrial use.

Republican House Natural Resources and Environment Committee Chairman Jean-Paul Coussan did not respond to multiple requests for comment. After reading the first part of this series, Republican Senate Environmental Quality Committee Chairman Eddie Lambert said he was concerned about the issue.

“I may be looking at this,” he said. “We need to do a comprehensive study.”

“Pristine drinking water should not be used by industry or agriculture,” Lambert added.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards declined to comment.

The state’s four largest private-interest groups gave more than $170,000 in campaign contributions to committee members in the five years since Marcelle began introducing groundwater bills.

In 2019, Marcelle tried a different tact: She asked the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office to step in.

The auditor’s office investigated the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission, which is supposed to oversee the Southern Hills aquifer in the Baton Rouge area.

The findings were scathing. The report highlighted conflicts of interest and rampant mismanagement. It found that 50 years after the commission was formed, salt water continues to creep in. Some groundwater levels decreased 50 feet during that period — a massive drop given that the average depth to the water table is 41 feet, according to USGS water level data.

“The commission does not effectively regulate water withdrawals from the aquifer to reduce and manage saltwater encroachment and ensure the sustainability of fresh groundwater for the future,” the report said.

It also found that two major companies use more than a quarter of the region’s water. ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge refinery, one of the largest in the world, and a Georgia Pacific plant that makes paper towels and toilet paper — used 55 billion gallons in 2019.

Gina Brown, the auditor who co-wrote that report, said the commission needs to limit industrial water use.

“We don't have an abundance of water,” she said. “The Southern Hills aquifer needs to be regulated so that it can continue to provide drinking water for the citizens for years to come.”

A year later, Brown and her team at the Legislative Auditor’s Office opened a new investigation into groundwater resource management statewide.

Their findings called for the Legislature to create a groundwater resource management plan, just as those earlier reports recommended. It also outlined a series of corrective measures to reverse groundwater overuse — all of which would require action by the Legislature.

Whose Job is This?

Technically, Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources oversees groundwater. But the Legislature has given the DNR only limited authority and few enforcement powers. The agency’s Office of Conservation can flag “areas of groundwater concern,” but the law requires water users themselves to request the designation.

In 2005 — at the request of the Sparta Ground Water Conservation Commission — the DNR flagged the Sparta Aquifer in northwest Louisiana as being at-risk because of overpumping, largely by industry.

But the Sparta commission can’t limit pumping in the aquifer and the designation did little to curb industry overuse.

It called for an “aggressive water conservation education program” and for monthly reports showing water level measurements “when available.” It encouraged water users to find other water sources, but didn’t limit the amount they could withdraw from the aquifer.

The DNR took a similarly weak response in 2011 when a statewide drought caused water levels to drop substantially in the endangered Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which serves millions of people in Louisiana and Texas. The emergency orders called only for a reduction in groundwater use to the “maximum extent possible.”

“At the end of the day, there’s only so much we have the authority to do,” DNR Communications Director Patrick Courreges told the IRW and WWNO/WRKF. “This is stuff the Legislature needs to look at, and that’s what we are kind of running into. Folks that I work with, we feel like we’re right up against the edge of our regulatory authority.”

Some Kind of Plan

Marcelle supports creating a statewide water management plan. She also wants the state to update its antiquated water code, which makes groundwater a free-for-all among users. Louisiana is one of just 17 states that don’t give preference to the public in the allocation of groundwater resources.

In 2015, the Legislature took a step in that direction when it authorized the Louisiana State Law Institute to study the water code and make recommendations to update it. But other than filing annual reports, the institute hasn’t made any formal recommendations.

Committee chair Mark Davis has been pushing for a comprehensive water code for more than a decade. He directs Tulane University’s Institute on Water Resources Law & Policy and is an expert in water resource management.

“The more we saw, the more we realized that people were hoping water would be managed smartly for great public benefit,” he said. “We just couldn't find that it was anyone’s job to do it.”

The committee’s work, Davis said, has been slowed by major storms and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In short, this is like pulling a stagecoach with a team of horses,” he said. “The stage does not move at the pace of the fastest horse.”

Until the groundwater law is updated, Davis said Louisiana’s water remains up for grabs. “Individuals and fate” are controlling the state’s water for now, he said. “Whether you do the best job or the worst job, someone should be accountable for the job.”

A Local Solution

Without a statewide groundwater management plan — or laws that give regulators more teeth — the task of protecting water has been left to local governments.

One of the most farsighted efforts took place nearly 20 years ago in the northern Louisiana town of West Monroe.

Its 12,000 residents rely on the Sparta Aquifer for water. So does the major employer in town, a paper mill that’s the single largest groundwater user in Louisiana’s portion of the aquifer. Graphic Packaging International produces beverage containers for companies such as Capri Sun and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the local economy.

The Sparta is one of the state’s most heavily used aquifers; 15 parishes in northeast Louisiana rely on it for fresh water, and drinking water remains the aquifer’s biggest demand. But industrial wells consume greater individual quantities of water at faster rates, drawing down the aquifer in hyper-local areas. A 1994 U.S. Geological Survey analysis found that the Sparta was being overdrawn by nearly 18 million gallons a day — and that Graphic Packaging was responsible for nearly a quarter of the daily excess in West Monroe. So much water had been withdrawn that three colossal underground cones of depression have formed in northern Louisiana and southern Arkansas. Groundwater levels near these depressions had plummeted on average more than 1 foot a year for the last 20 years, USGS experts said.

In 1999, the Legislature established the Sparta Groundwater Conservation District to protect the aquifer. But it didn’t give the district any regulatory power to tell the paper mill to stop using so much water.

So West Monroe took action.

Terry Emory, West Monroe’s environmental quality manager, said the town had to do something to save its seven drinking water wells from running dry or being ruined by salt water sucked into the aquifer by overpumping.

“If they continued to draw all that water, we would lose our drinking water,” Emory said. “They were using 10 million gallons a day out of the river [and] 10 million gallons a day out of the aquifer.”

The city decided to expand its wastewater treatment plant and offer the treated water to the mill. They called it the Sparta Reuse Facility after the aquifer it was meant to save.

Emory said it was a challenge to persuade residents the project was needed.

“We took care of the problem before they had a problem,” Emory said. “If we had waited until it’s too late, then everybody would have been in trouble.”

The project was funded by a combination of state and federal revolving loans, state infrastructure capital outlay and a combined $700,000 from the city and sewer district.

Graphic Packaging paid only for the piping to connect to the water the new treatment plant was producing.

“This whole entire area is very economically dependent on that paper mill, so it was really important for us to keep them here,” Emory said.“The agreement with them was that if we could produce water that met all EPA primary and secondary drinking water standards, that they would accept the water. Gallon-for-gallon, the amount of water that we could send them, they would not draw out of wells, and they have held to that agreement.”

Graphic Packaging declined to comment for this story but confirmed information about the treatment plant.

Today, the mill draws about 10 million gallons of water from the river, 5 million gallons from the aquifer and another 5 million gallons from the Sparta Reuse Facility. Officials hope to expand the plant’s capacity so it can draw down the mill’s reliance on groundwater even more.

The aquifer is showing signs of recovery.

In conjunction with another water supply project in Union County, Arkansas, major industries have reduced groundwater consumption in the aquifer by more than 10 million gallons a day, according to USGS estimates.

“At the center of the depression, they have seen over a 100-foot rise in their water wells,” said Lindsay Goudey, the Sparta Groundwater Conservation Commission’s education coordinator. “And that just stands out like a ripple effect. So we benefit from Arkansas and their conservation efforts. Likewise, they would benefit from our conservation efforts.”

The bigger problem, Goudey said, is lack of data because it’s hard to protect the water if you don’t know how much there is.

“If you don’t know what you’re aiming at, you’ll miss it every time,” Goudey said. “And we don’t know what we’re aiming at.”

As the region’s population grows, the need for better data is greater than ever, she said. Of the 160,000 recent well measurements the IRW and WWNO/WRKF analyzed in Louisiana, just 9,834 were in the Sparta Aquifer, compared with 46,000 in the Chicot and Southern Hills aquifer systems. USGS estimates are released every five years in Louisiana; the latest report cites 2015 data.

Marcelle, the legislator who spearheaded efforts at fixing Louisiana’s groundwater woes, is discouraged by the lack of progress on compiling more robust data and developing a statewide management plan.

But she said she would keep reintroducing her bills and working to resolve the state’s precarious water situation.

This story was produced by the Investigative Reporting Workshop and WWNO/WRKF.

We analyzed U.S. Geological Survey Groundwater Data for Louisiana to determine the extent to which water levels have declined.

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