The president of the Baton Rouge Water Company and water conservationists are warning that the area’s top-rated water supply could be spoiled within a few decades unless industry reduces the amount of water it pulls from the freshwater aquifers.
The concern is that large-scale industrial use of the freshwater supply could, over time, draw in salt water.
“The problem is that once you ruin that freshwater supply with salt water, it’s ruined,” said Eugene Owen, president of the water company.
But that may not happen for another 50 years.
Nevertheless, Metro Councilman Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois is expected to bring the topic up for discussion at Wednesday’s council meeting.
“I want to talk about the water we absolutely drink, cook with and bathe in,” he said. “We’re reaching a point where it’s becoming more and more of a problem and we’re getting closer to the deadlines.”
Bourgeois said he eventually wants to “coax” industries into reducing their pull from freshwater aquifers that provide the public tap water.
“I don’t want to end up drinking river water in my lifetime,” he said.
The Metro Council, however, has limited authority in the matter, he said, noting it would be up to the state Legislature to impose restrictions on aquifer use.
Baton Rouge gets its water from underground aquifers, where water is filtered through different levels of sands.
The aquifers in East Baton Rouge Parish butt up to a geologic fault line that runs east-west through the parish south of Florida Boulevard.
To the north of the fault line is fresh water, and to the south is salt water. But salt water tends to leak through the fault into the fresh water, officials have said.
Fresh water is drawn by entities like Baton Rouge Water Company and by industries like Georgia Pacific, Exxon and Entergy.
The problem, experts have concluded, is that water is being pulled from the aquifers faster than it’s being replenished.
And the faster fresh water is being pulled from aquifers, the more salt water is being drawn north into the clean water supply.
Frank Tsai, an LSU associate professor who has been studying the impact of salt water intrusion, predicts that within the next 50 years, the water wells used to collect Baton Rouge’s drinking water will be contaminated by salt water.
His prediction is based on current water consumption levels, but he said if those levels increase, the contamination could occur sooner.
Tsai said it’s important for industries using ground water to explore using treated Mississippi River water for their purposes.
About four years ago, Baton Rouge Water Company purchased land near the river in case the day comes when the aquifers are spoiled and Baton Rouge drinking water needs to be drawn from the river, Owen said.
“We had to get some access to the river ourselves in case we can’t get things to change,” he said.
In 2006, Owen advocated a plan to tax well-owners pulling from the aquifers and putting the tax revenues in a fund to help subsidize the cost to industry of treating river water.
The plan was presented to the Louisiana Groundwater Conservation Commission, he said, but was tabled.
“Most industries withdrawing water are located very near the river, where they have an unlimited supply of water,” he said. “But it costs a lot more to take river water and treat it.”
Reducing industry dependence on the aquifer could extend the public’s use of it by 75 years, Owen said.
Of the billions of gallons of water pumped annually from the aquifer, industry uses 40 percent and public use is 60 percent, Owen said.
Baton Rouge Water Company is also preparing to build wells that would suck up salt water that has intruded into the aquifers. But he called this plan a temporary solution.
Tony Duplechin, director of the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission, said that in recent years industries have been more actively monitoring their fresh water intake.
Georgia Pacific, the industry that uses the most water from the local aquifers, pumped about 12.5 billion gallons of water last year — down from 15 billion gallons in 2000, according to data provided by the commission.
“It’s something we realize is a concern,” said Duplechin, whose commission is made up of representatives from both public and private well users. “But we don’t want to call it a problem right now. We’re not throwing up flags and saying we need to shut down plants.”
Owen noted that conservationists have been watching this issue for more than 50 years.
He said the water company is waiting on results of some studies that they may use to bolster a renewed effort to encourage industries to use river water.
“When you have a public problem like this, that is chronic but has a long solution time, people don’t want to address it until you don’t have time to fix it,” Owen said.