The time has come for the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission to find the money needed to slow the flow of salt water toward the aquifer that provides Baton Rouge with drinking water and is needed by industry for a variety of uses.
The commission will consider potential legislation at its Tuesday meeting to fund its 10-year management plan, if a legislator can be found who is willing to stand as the bill’s author.
Currently, the commission has the authority to charge a fee per million gallons for regulated water users in a five-parish area that includes East Baton Rouge. That $5 per million gallon fee helps raise about $350,000 a year for salaries, office operation and projects such as groundwater computer modeling being done through the U.S. Geological Survey.
However, since the management plan was passed by the commission last year — which outlined some of the next steps to halt saltwater intrusion into groundwater used by residents and businesses in Baton Rouge, it was determined the $5 fee won’t cover additional costs.
An immediate need is to get monitoring wells drilled or opened in areas where it’s assumed the saltwater plume is moving underground. The hope is to get a better handle on where projects should be constructed.
The slow movement of salt water over the Baton Rouge fault — which runs roughly from the Mississippi River, along I-10 through Baton Rouge — has been a concern for decades. The commission was formed in the 1970s to find a solution before the saltwater intrusion impacts industrial facility intakes or the numerous wells that provide drinking water for Baton Rouge.
One stop-gap measure being pursued is the use of scavenger wells to siphon off the salt water before it reaches the saltwater plume coming from south of the Baton Rouge fault. The proposed legislation also allows any additional fees to pay for injection well systems as well as treatment systems to address saltwater intrusion.
Although there is a rough idea of where the plume of salt water is located as it is gradually pulled north by groundwater extraction, more detailed information is needed if a scavenger well is going to be effective in intercepting it.
Getting those test wells in place and monitoring the groundwater movement takes money, and the commission will consider charging an additional surcharge if layers of the multilayer, freshwater aquifer is found to be in danger.
“So how do we fund the necessary test wells?” asked Dale Aucoin, commission member who was giving the presentation to the technical committee on March 10.
The commission, he said, has two choices. One is to keep the status quo and have all the regulated users pay an additional fee, even though that would mean users in Pointe Coupee Parish paying for what is essentially a Baton Rouge problem.
The second option is to get legislative authority to use computer modeling to make science-based decisions and limit the amount a regulated user would pay in additional fees based on the layer of the aquifer found to be in danger. The Southern Hills Aquifer that runs under Baton Rouge includes many different layers of groundwater.
The surcharge would apply only to regulated users defined as those that remove 50,000 gallons a day or more. Exemptions include wells located in the Mississippi River alluvial aquifer, wells of less than 400 feet, wells that produce less than 50,000 gallons a day and agricultural users.
“Right now, we’re having trouble finding an author,” said Anthony Duplechin, director of the commission of the possible legislation.
Matthew Reonas, the commissioner representing the state Department of Natural Resources, said it could be difficult to get someone to sign up as the bill’s author during an election year for something that could be seen as a new tax or fee. The key will be to make sure industry and other large water users are on board with the proposal.
The next commission meeting will be held at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the U.S. Geological Survey, 3535 S. Sherwood Forest Blvd. Suite 120.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.