In six weeks, the group in charge of the aquifer that serves as Baton Rouge's water supply is due to present a report to the state; what they'll turn over remains to be seen.
Last year, state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, introduced a bill to fundamentally change how the Baton Rouge area manages its groundwater. The proposed legislation, which never made it out of committee, would have laid the groundwork for limitations or even prohibitions on pumping. Several members of the Capital Area Groundwater Conservation Commission would have been kicked off because they represent companies like Exxon, Georgia-Pacific and the Baton Rouge Water Co., and the new law would have prevented people with a business interest in the aquifer from serving.
But while that proposal failed to move forward, Marcelle successfully shepherded through a more modest plan aimed at making the local commission adhere to public meeting laws and requiring it to submit semi-annual reports to the legislature about the health of the aquifer. The first of those reports has come due.
The issue facing policy makers is how best to address the challenges posed by a fault that runs under Baton Rouge roughly along Interstate 10. Over the years, saltwater south of the line has been leaching into the freshwater supply to the north, where the water company pumps drinking water and manufacturers draw water for industrial uses.
Marcelle and the Louisiana Office of Conservation have drawn up a 27-item checklist of documents, reports and statistics they want to see in the report. Some issues are straightforward — names of board members, copies of agendas, groundwater use fees. Others are technical — like scientific analyses of the attempts to stop saltwater from sloshing over the Baton Rouge fault and contaminating the fresh supply.
Tuesday morning at the Commission's quarterly meeting, board members said the list wasn't what the law originally called for and would have to be re-approved through the state's Administrative Procedure Act, which will require holding a new public hearing.
They sent it back to the Office on Conservation unanimously minus Commissioner Matt Reonas, who represents the Office of Conservation.
"The checklist just says exactly what the law says you should do already," Marcelle told the Commission on Tuesday.
"I don't think that it's anything out of the ordinary. ... I don't understand the pushback," she added in an interview after the meeting.
Commission Chairman Barry Hugghins said he doesn't have a problem with the items requested and he just wants to make sure the public has a chance to weigh in. In an interview, he said the checklist includes a lot of information that's already available on the commission's website but he wouldn't have a problem filing the requested documents on Nov. 1 when the report is due.
"It's not particularly onerous," he said.
However, several commissioners said hydrological reports and geological surveys don't make for light — or even comprehensible — reading for lay people. Hugghins suggested the commission look into hiring a public relations firm.
Environmentalists in the room were immediately wary.
Kathy Wascom, of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, and Russel Honoré, of the Green Army, questioned if the commission was preparing to hire a lobbyist.
"Could those monies be better used to have a long-term management plan for the salt water?" Wascom asked.
To the public, the solutions are simple, Honoré said: Tell Exxon to switch to using Mississippi River water, get Georgia-Pacific to decrease its reliance on groundwater and tell the Baton Rouge Water Co. to stop selling East Baton Rouge water to customers outside the parish.
"We keep doing the same thing we were doing 50, 60 years ago, and we keep getting the same result. ... The aquifer continues to get weaker," he said.
The commission has worked to address saltwater intrusion by scouting locations for scavenger wells, which pump saltwater away from areas where freshwater is drawn. A recent study found that salt levels near the scavenger well by the Baton Rouge Water Co.'s 1,500-foot well at North and 32nd streets won't rise for at least 100 years, Hugghins said.
"We spend all our time arguing about trivia, and this is actually important," he said.
If the commission can find a public relations firm for a fair price, they'll help get that message out and maybe do some other work like spruce up their website and social media accounts, Hugghins said.
As a political agency, the Groundwater Commission is forbidden from lobbying, said Assistant Attorney General Harry Vorhoff, who represents the commission.
He may be on his way out, too. While the Attorney General's Office is required to help the commission with enforcement issues, like unpaid fees, they've begun to charge for other services, like reviewing contracts.
"My feelings are not hurt. I would encourage you to check the market," Vorhoff said.
The commissioners agreed to get some quotes for public relations and legal firms but signed no deals Tuesday.