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Nearly a year and a half ago, the Legislative Auditor's Office reported that a Baton Rouge-area groundwater regulator uses the honor system to keep tabs on and collect fees from the pumping of the region's drinking water source. 

Big groundwater users are required to report their pumping from the Southern Hills Aquifer, but the groundwater commission doesn't collect actual data from those pumps to check those reports.

As part of a scathing audit issued in May 2019, the state office found the failure to check pumping reports could mean the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission wasn't collecting all the pumping fees it was due, much less fully understanding the usage of the aquifer that the commission is charged with protecting.

The commission has come under increasing fire, including from state auditors, to do more to protect the fresh water drinking water source for more than 600,000 people in the Baton Rouge area from slow-moving salt water intrusion.

Gary Beard, the new director of the commission, recently asked the Legislature for $7.85 million over the next three fiscal years to put in meters and real-time electronic monitoring on the nearly 400 wells under the commission's purview.

The meters would report through a "SCADA," or supervisory control and data acquisition, system that Beard wants to buy along with the meters to collect the water pumping data. The monitoring would also report on salt water levels in the various wells. 

Beard, a former Baton Rouge legislator and longtime engineer, made the request through Legislature's capital outlay process, he said.

The application wouldn't be considered until next spring. If granted, the dollars wouldn't kick in any sooner the fiscal 2021-2022 and represent a major influx of cash for a regulator with a budget of about $1.3 million this year.

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As proposed, Beard asked for $1.85 million in the first year and $3 million each in the following two years after he did some preliminary engineering for the system.

Capital outlay is a competitive process, especially in tight budgetary times. Funding requests can be put off for years. But the capital outlay application fulfilled one of Beard's promises to the 18-member panel that he made as part of a proposed early action plan when he was seeking the job earlier this fall.

"As I hear more back from the (Louisiana) Division of Administration, I'll keep you posted. Hopefully this will make it through session in spring, and we'll be able to have some funds that we can start using toward that need," Beard told the groundwater commission Thursday.

In a later interview, Beard said that, in the interim, the commission has hired a firm to start checking pumping data and verifying the accuracy of monthly reports from well users.

The commission charges fees — its primary revenue source — through reported pumping volumes and also has instituted voluntary caps on pumping from two layers of the aquifer to slow salt water intrusion. 

Commission reports show big users of the two threatened aquifer layers, known as "sands," have remained below those caps. Both sands are pumped by industrial users and public suppliers of drinking water.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.