The Southern Hills Aquifer

Image of the Southern Hills Aquifer system provided by the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission. Southern Hills provides water for drinking and commercial use throughout the Baton Rouge metro area.

An environmental group that has questioned the management of Baton Rouge's drinking water aquifer has launched a campaign to encourage major industries to end their use of the region's groundwater while demanding that Baton Rouge Water Co. detail its plans for a sustainable future.

The Louisiana Environmental Action Network has unveiled its "Save Our Water" campaign, opening a website, sending letters to legislators and other elected officials, and mailing 13,000 postcards to targeted registered voters in East Baton Rouge Parish to highlight the pumping demands and salt water intrusion the group says are threatening the aquifer.

Marylee Orr, executive director of LEAN, said the campaign was prompted by a Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office report in May that criticized the 44-year-old Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission's management of the South Hills aquifer. 

"This is a precious resource that we want to preserve for ourselves and future generations, and that's why we're doing it," she said Wednesday.

Orr called the Legislative Auditor's report a "reality check."

Among many findings, auditors wrote that the groundwater commission had allowed industrial wells to be drilled in two water-bearing layers of the aquifer that were previously reserved for public use. Because of that, industry had used 14.25 years worth of drinking water since 1975 that had been designated for public use.

Another finding concludes the most critical pumping limits that the commission set are too high to force pumping reductions and so haven't been slowing the rate of salt water intrusion.

The new LEAN website has online petitions urging Georgia Pacific, ExxonMobil, Entergy and Eco-Services to get off the aquifer and switch to the Mississippi River while telling Baton Rouge Water, a private company that is the major water provider for the area, to explain its plan to use the aquifer sustainably.

The campaign comes as the groundwater commission is developing a 50-year strategic plan. Discussions have revolved around the commission's ability to limit pumping and toward a series of policy decisions, like encouraging water reuse, conservation by industry and the general public, and the use of public-private partnerships to help companies shift off the aquifer.

Tony Duplechin, executive director of the commission, said he is all for public education but argued that LEAN's concerns about the aquifer and salt water intrusion are overstated. He said the aquifer covers thousands of square miles — across the Florida Parishes, stretching both north and east into Mississippi — but the salt water intrusion affects only a small area of downtown Baton Rouge.   

He said salt water is threatening Baton Rouge Water's Lula Avenue pumping station but not drinking water across the entire aquifer. A specialized scavenger well was installed to intercept the intrusion.

"I don't think it's a big threat," he said.

Yet, in the lead-up to the groundwater commission's planning effort, the Water Institute of the Gulf estimated a large swath of the aquifer under the Baton Rouge region wasn't recharging as fast as groundwater was being removed from it. Demand, from industrial and public use, is expected to increase, the institute found.

Some commissioners questioned this conclusion, noting groundwater levels haven't dropped in recent history — a sign, they say, that pumping isn't surpassing resupply.

Georgia-Pacific also cut groundwater use by 58% when it closed one of its major production areas earlier this year in Port Hudson and says it is continuing to try to reduce water use.

That change wasn't factored into the Water Institute's estimate, either, but adding the reductions would cut the recharge deficit by nearly half, company and Water Institute estimates show.

Spokespersons for three of the companies LEAN cites in its campaign — ExxonMobil, Entergy and Georgia-Pacific — say they want science to drive long-term planning for the aquifer. ExxonMobil and Georgia-Pacific also questioned the need or effectiveness of reducing their own groundwater pumping based on current information.

Danny Lee, spokesman for ExxonMobil, pointed to a 2013 U.S. Geological Survey modeling analysis that, he says, shows that ending all groundwater pumping in the industrial area along the Mississippi would shift salt water concentrations east toward public water wells.

That study looked at the effect of several scenarios through 2047, combining industrial pumping reductions and the use of the scavenger well.

The study found some of most extensive intrusion happened when nothing was done. It did find the highest concentrations of salt would shift east toward drinking water wells when all industrial pumping stopped, but the overall intrusion also halted farther south than in any other scenario, including when the scavenger well was used.

Lee said ExxonMobil "supports the exploration of win-win opportunities" through public-private partnerships to shift industry and community users to river water.

Hays Owen, Baton Rouge Water's senior vice president and chief administrative officer, said his company isn't affiliated with LEAN and declined to respond directly to LEAN's call for more on the company's long-term plans.

But he said the company's mission remains to "do all we can do to sustain the groundwater" for public supply. The water company was the heaviest user of the aquifer, by far, in 2018, the state audit found.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.