After a critical state audit, an ethics complaint and charges from environmentalists that the "foxes are guarding the hen house," the Capital Area groundwater commission will kick off a lengthy strategic planning process Thursday to answer its most critical question for the future. 

How can Southern Hills aquifer support the Baton Rouge region's water use as new people and businesses increase their demand on the critical drinking water source?

The commission has contracted with the nonprofit Water Institute of the Gulf to lead the process that begins with a pair of two-hour meetings — one at 1:30 p.m. Thursday and the second at 8:30 a.m. Friday — at the U.S. Geological Survey offices in Baton Rouge.

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Alyssa Dausman, a hydrologist and vice president for science at the Water Institute, told a state water resources panel Wednesday that though the 18-member Baton Rouge-area commission has a variety of interests represented, she has come to a realization.

She said her own one-on-one interviews of the members showed her they are on the "same page" as far as long-term goals.

"We need clean water. Alright, it's not like rocket science. In 50 years to 100 years, I would like to have clean water available for drinking or industry. We would like to have jobs. We would like for that growth to continue," she said the groundwater commissioners have told her. 

But she said the means of getting to that final objective is "where a lot of the conflict occurs."

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The commissioners are set to use a decision-making process led by a U.S. Geological Survey facilitator that will require members to step back and focus first on what the problem is and what objectives they want to achieve before anyone discusses alternatives to achieving those ends.

Only the first phase of the three-phase process has been funded — more meetings are planned in late August and mid-September — and the effort is expected to require additional scientific work once the commissioners decide the path they want to pursue.

In a preparatory meeting last week with groundwater commissioners, Water Institute researchers offered background on the sprawling Southern Hills aquifer, which lies under much the Florida parishes and is recharged across the northern tier of some of those parishes and in southern Mississippi. 

The researchers showed the commissioners how continued groundwater pumping at least since 1953 had caused increasing drawdown, removing fresh water that had pressed down and held back creeping salt water deeper underground.

During that time, salt water has moved north through some of the several underground layers of sand that make up the aquifer and are now used for water supply.

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Scott Hemmerling, a Water Institute geographer, told the Capital Area groundwater commissioners last week that a rough estimate shows the aquifer's groundwater levels between the Mississippi and Tangipahoa rivers appear to be in a state of annual deficit.

Estimated aquifer recharge isn't keeping up with estimated demand, falling about 5.5% short of the amount needed for the annual recharge; that figure, though, doesn't include the shutdown of a major portion of the Georgia-Pacific plant in Port Hudson earlier this year.

While some environmentalists and other critics of the commission have taken aim at industrial users and called on them to switch their use to the Mississippi River, the researchers' data showed the heaviest users depends on where one looks.

While 63% of the use in the Bayou Sara and Thompson watershed, which includes downtown Baton Rouge, is industrial, 80% of the use in the Amite River Basin is public supply. That category includes residential but also businesses and other uses.

"I mean that's where we see population affects water use outside the city, more so than industry inside the city," Hemmerling said.

Growth patterns, though — from people moving to high-rises downtown to new subdivisions farther out in the Amite River Basin — could affect how demand shifts and increases, Hemmerling added.

Under state law's so-called rule of capture, groundwater is generally available to whoever can drill deep enough to get it, but the Capital Area groundwater commission has powers to regulate and even prioritize the aquifer's use. 

Speaking to the Louisiana Water Resources Commission on Wednesday, outgoing state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, reviewed two failed bills that he proposed this past session.

One would have provided up to $10 million in tax credits per plant, for all tax years, for equipment to reduce water use or to switch from drinking water aquifers to surface water or non-drinking water sources.

Another bill would have offered cash incentives to consumers to conserve water by buying things like high-efficiency toilets and washing machines.

Though Claitor said the broader public often isn't interested in issues like groundwater conservation until "the barbarians are at the gate," he asked the state panel to press for similar kinds of legislation in the future.

"We have to take these things on and think about it, and sometimes one guy can't do it by himself," said Claitor, who has tried to raise awareness of his district's groundwater concerns.

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Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.