Members of a commission struggling to create a 50-year strategic plan for managing the region's aquifer tossed around a lot of ideas at a recent meeting for preserving the vital resource but endorsed no specific measures.

The Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission, which manages the multiparish Southern Hills aquifer, has been under pressure from critics to move more aggressively to protect the region's drinking water supply from salt water intrusion coming from the south.

Sitting in a panoramic, glass-walled, third-floor meeting room of the Water Institute that overlooks the rolling Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, commissioners threw out ideas about new water supplies and reducing demand on the huge, groundwater resource that lies underneath Louisiana's capital city. These included:

  • Incentives for industries to switch to river water from groundwater.
  • Pursuing systems to reuse water, including possibly with treated sewage effluent and regional rainfall storage reservoirs.
  • Shifting water production wells, including those for Baton Rouge Water Co., away from zones already being affected by salt water intrusion.
  • Harder caps on new and even existing wells to limit groundwater withdrawals. 
  • Informational campaigns and possibly rate structures to encourage homeowners and businesses to use less water.

None of those ideas nor others bandied about received a particular endorsement this past week.

Some could require passing new legislation or partnerships with businesses, financiers and other agencies, like the utility rate-setting Louisiana Public Service Commission.

Others are likely costly, but all were part of a brainstorming session as a facilitator from the United States Geological Survey encouraged commissioners to come up with ideas to address the group's big-picture objectives for their plan.

The Water Institute is helping the commission develop the new plan, and the commissioners grappled during the last of two meetings Thursday and Friday with not only what they needed to do but the size of the task facing them.

About 90% of all daily water use in East Baton Rouge Parish came from ground water in 2015, or about 153.1 million gallons per day, according to the USGS' newly published report on Louisiana.

That represents a 2.1% increase in groundwater use over 2010. Though overall water use dropped less than 1% since 2010, reliance on groundwater has increased by 2.5 percentage points as surface water use declined, the USGS found.

Industry, excluding power plants, and homes and businesses drew roughly equal amounts from the aquifer in Baton Rouge in 2015: 72.59 million gallons per day for industry versus 72.21 million gallons per day for homes and businesses, the USGS found. 

Commissioner Ken Dawson, who is the chief administrative officer for Ascension Parish government and represents the parish on the commission, said the commission needs a better idea of the kind of water demand to expect for the future as communities and industries grow.

Commissioner Barry Hugghins said the commission needs to not only determine what the aquifer's limit is but also to inform the public, businesses and industries about what's at stake if that limit is reached.

"The question is, what do we do when we reach that limit? Because if we keep growing, we're going to reach that limit," Hugghins said.

He said the public, industry, the Baton Rouge Water Co. and other governmental entities producing water in outlying areas need to know when that limit is likely to be reached and "what are we going to do when we get there."

Hugghins said it would not be fair to entice billion-dollar projects to the region with one expectation for groundwater use and then a few years later move to greatly restrict that use.

"You can take all the economic development money that we spend and go dump it off that bridge because if we ever have to do that, we're done. We're done," Hugghins said.

Environmentalists have argued that industries, in particular ExxonMobil's huge refinery and chemical complex in northern Baton Rouge, should switch to river water to save the aquifer for humans. Industry backers say that facility, which is nearly 110 years old, and other plants have been geared to take advantage of the aquifer's purity and that kind of switch can't be done easily.

In the commission's fundamental objectives for the new strategic plan, the body has somewhat split the difference.

The objectives first recognize the need for "healthy, high-quality drinking water" to all residents on an equal basis but also states the need to provide clean, inexpensive water for business and industries "indefinitely." 

Yet, the objectives also call for the commission to achieve sustainable and resilient groundwater withdrawals from the aquifer and reduce salt water intrusion.

Last month, the Water Institute provided the commissioners an estimate that the aquifer in the Baton Rouge area was already operating at deficit between pumping and natural recharge. However,  some commissioners have questioned the validity of that estimate, especially in light of recent plant shutdowns that have cut groundwater use.

Bills to provide tax incentives to plants to switch to river water and for consumers to buy high-efficiency appliances failed to gain traction in the Legislature earlier this year.

But an ExxonMobil representative told the commission Friday the company is interested in pursuing public-private partnerships and other opportunities.

The commission meets again Sept. 12-13 and is expected to settle on a series of measures and then ask the Water Institute and other researchers to see how well they fulfill the plan's big-picture objectives. 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.