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Drillers work on a test well earlier in August on land at the corner of Thomas H. Delpit Drive and Myrtle Avenue to prepare for a scavenger well that the Capital Area groundwater commission is preparing in Baton Rouge. At the time of the photograph, the well had reached 1,400 feet. More test wells could be necessary before the scavenger well is built but, once finished, the scavenger well will be used to intercept salt water intrusion into the Southern Hills aquifer, the drinking water source for the region. The commission is also working on a strategic plan to manage the aquifer for the long term.

A state commission under fire over its management of groundwater in the Baton Rouge region agreed Wednesday to find a new full-time executive director and retain its existing part-time director in an advisory role.

The Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission created the new advisory position for longtime director Tony Duplechin. Members said they hope to find a full-time director by June 2020.

The moves came as one step among several to ramp up the commission's posture toward groundwater regulation, with the commission on Wednesday adopting a series of changes mostly without opposition.

Environmental activists, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office and some commissioners have criticized the 44-year-old body over failing to better regulate groundwater withdrawals from the Southern Hills aquifer, which supplies drinking water to Baton Rouge and surrounding areas but suffers from saltwater intrusion in the city. 

Over the summer, the commission took an initial step toward finding a full-time director when Duplechin appeared to indicate he would step down as director; however, he later said he meant only that his retirement status with his prior job with the state would prevent him from working full time as the commission's director.

Some commissioners were pushing for a full-time director, arguing the demands of the job had changed and need the attention of a full-time leader. The commission, for example, is facing the task of developing a 50-year strategic plan to manage the Southern Hills aquifer.

Commissioner William Daniel, an Ascension Parish official who is a Baton Rouge representative on the body, told other commissioners Wednesday the advisory position was being created to take advantage of Duplechin's institutional knowledge. Duplechin led the commission for eight years.

Also on Wednesday, the commission agreed:

  • to post meeting audio recordings online, have commission meetings bimonthly rather than quarterly, and pursue greater oversight on new wells.
  • to use analysts from the House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment, for free, to create policies and procedures and hired the law firm Marionneaux Kantrow to assist in that process at a cost of up to $12,500.
  • to seek an opinion from the state Attorney General's Office about whether the commission's authority to regulate pumping outweighs long-standing court precedent. Known as the "rule of capture," the precedent essentially makes groundwater, which is treated under the law as a shared public resource, available to anyone who can drill to get it.

Commissioner Joey Normand asserted that questions among some commissioners about the effect of this ruling have hindered their willingness to pursue legally enforceable limits on groundwater pumping in the aquifer.

Normand said the commission's legal adviser, Assistant Attorney General Harry Vorhoff, had already issued an opinion indicating the commission has the power to regulate pumping that supersedes the rule of capture but Normand said he wants a formal opinion from the state office because it would carry more weight to help convince his fellow commissioners.

"It still seems to be in some people's mind that the rule of capture still trumps our ability to limit pumping," Normand said.

Some commissioners, like Matt Reonas, a representative from the state Office of Conservation, and Daniel countered that even if the rule of capture were found to hold more sway, the commission still could find ways to regulate pumping.

Both men noted the same kind of rule applies to oil and gas drilling and that hasn't stopped the Office of Conservation. But they ended up agreeing to seek the opinion.

The commission currently has voluntary pumping limits on some water-bearing sands in the Southern Hills aquifer and set aside others for public supply. A scathing report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office issued earlier this year found the limits were ineffective in limiting groundwater pumping. 

In the same vein, the commission also supported new procedures that will require a vote before new well permits are issued and require the review and readoption of pumping limits every year. 

Barry Hugghins, chairman of the commission's technical committee, said after the commission adopted those new policies that though the commission has in the past tried to work through consensus, he believes it's time to make pumping limits legally enforceable.

He said the commission has asked industry and the public to conserve and tried to halt saltwater intrusion but it's not fair to ask limits from some and not have a way of legally preventing others from breaking the rules. 

"I'm just trying to do the right thing," Hugghins said. "As I said, the rules are written to stop the people who don't want to do right thing, and I think we need to have legally enforceable rules." 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.