There was a prolonged period of silence at the Capital Area Ground Water Commission technical meeting Tuesday after commissioners were asked how they would explain why a decision on who will pay for needed groundwater information was being delayed again.
In the end, the answer went beyond who would pay for a couple of test wells in Baton Rouge.
Instead, the problem revolved around what precedent the commission is going to set for how the cost of managing and solving saltwater intrusion will be shared among users.
The public water supply industry, primarily Baton Rouge Water Co., wants industrial users to pay for the current project while industry representatives on the commission think the cost should be spread among all users. It’s an issue that’s likely to come up again at the commission’s regular meeting on Sept. 15.
Funding for the commission currently comes from a fee paid by users for each million gallons used in a five-parish area that includes East Baton Rouge.
At $5 per million gallons, the fee raises about $350,000 a year to pay for commission staff salaries, office operations and some projects such as computer modeling being done through the U.S. Geological Survey.
A management plan passed last year by the commission will require more money.
First up is the need to drill two wells to determine where salt water is located and how it is moving. The “scavenger wells” will draw salt water away from freshwater supplies, but more information is needed before drilling can begin.
The wells would cost about $250,000 a year for a couple years of operation within one layer of the aquifer, known as the 2,000-foot sands. In the months since the commission opted against asking the L egislature for a fee increase, they have settled on two options to fund the project.
The first option would be to use the commission’s current authority to raise the fee on all regulated users in the five-parish area. That would mean that people outside the saltwater intrusion area would need to pay the additional fee.
The second would require legislative approval to divide the cost of this one project among just the users of water in the aquifer at the 2,000-foot level. However, some argue that this could have some water users just moving their water use to another layer of the aquifer to avoid the fee. Also, it could set the stage for a complicated system of deciding which users pay for a variety of projects.
The new fee would apply only to regulated users — those who remove 50,000 gallons of water a day or more.
There are also a number of exemptions for those who take water out of the Mississippi River alluvial aquifer, any well of less than 400 feet in depth and for agriculture.
It’s uncertain how much the cost increase would be for users supplied by the Baton Rouge Water Co., and it’s that piece of information some commissioners said was still needed before making a decision. Other commissioners said since the current fee shows up as a few cents on a monthly bill, the change couldn’t be more than a few cents extra.
“The average homeowner is not going to feel the impact of this,” said Matt Reonas, commissioner representing the state Department of Natural Resources.
To get a sense of which option the 58 regulated water users preferred, two letters were sent earlier this year but only 21 replied. Those results were anything but definitive — six favoring the across the board, nine wanted just the 2,000-foot sand users to pay, four said either option was fine and two said neither.
“In the means of raising money, those are the only options available,” Reonas said.
Not exactly, said Commissioner Jeff Miller, water quality supervisor of Baton Rouge Water Co., who said industrial users could voluntarily fund the well project. Miller said the water company has paid for a scavenger well that benefits the troubled 1,500-foot sand portion of the aquifer and now it’s industry’s turn.
Although it may be just a few cents a month to residents now, he questioned at what point the increases to residents would end.
Dale Aucoin, commissioner from ExxonMobil who represents industry, said the request for an industrial contribution has been tried before and didn’t get many takers.
“No user wanted to absorb all the cost,” he said.
Aucoin said although industry has already calculated the cost of the options, the commission is still waiting for the water company’s estimates on what it would mean for their customers.
“People are going to want to know what it’s going to cost me at home,” said former commissioner Joey Hebert from Georgia Pacific.
Miller said he didn’t know if he would have that information available by the commission meeting Sept. 15.
Hebert told the commission that while board members don’t disagree very often, this discussion will be different.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.