Unacceptable environmental damage continues to affect Baton Rouge region's drinking water aquifer, the state Office of Conservation says, and a local groundwater commission should create and enforce a plan to manage that resource soon.

In a new report, the state Office of Conservation adds that if the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission doesn't make suitable progress on the plan by July 1, 2023, the Legislature should consider giving the state office additional power and money to achieve that goal instead.

Called for by the Legislature last year and issued ahead of a new session beginning March 9, the 38-page report says the full social and economic costs of water level declines and continued salt water intrusion haven't been fully accounted for in Baton Rouge, including any future relocation of water infrastructure that would be borne by ratepayers.

The current efforts to address salt water intrusion that the commission has endorsed — so-called scavenger wells designed to intercept the moving salt front — are short-term and could worsen the problem long term without pumping reductions, while reductions in groundwater pumping represent the most sure-fire fix, the report adds.

"The maintenance of the unaltered groundwater pumping regime in Baton Rouge as it currently exists without some sort of remediation will continue to result in further degradation of the aquifer system in the coming decades," the report says.

The report serves as both a warning to the groundwater panel sometimes criticized as too beholden to the users it regulates and also an encouragement of its latest efforts to develop a long-term plan with help from the Water Institute of the Gulf.

"In the agency’s view, this means funding to completion of the current management plan effort with the Water Institute of the Gulf," the report says.

Environmental groups, some commissioners and others have highlighted for several years the gradual movement of salt water across the Baton Rouge fault into the lower fringes of the sweeping Southern Hills Aquifer, where, in Baton Rouge, key drinking water wells and industrial supply wells are located.

The Office of Conservation report was issued Friday at behest of a House resolution sponsored by state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge.

The new report came just days after the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office issued its own report faulting, more broadly, Louisiana's management of its water resources, split up among a variety of state, regional and local agencies, including the Office of Conservation.

That report found that while many agencies don't have enough power to regulate water use, some have power but don't use it. Last year, another state Auditor's Office report faulted the Capital Area groundwater commission specifically for not doing enough to regulate groundwater use in Baton Rouge despite extensive power granted to it in the mid-1970s.

The latest state auditor's report calls on the Legislature to give local authorities and the state Department of Natural Resources, of which the Office of Conservation is a part, more power to restrict groundwater use.

Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which is leading a public-relations campaign to the highlight what it sees as a groundwater problem in Baton Rouge, noted the recent series of reports about the aquifer's long-term health. 

"All of these reports tell us there is a problem. Everyone agrees there is a problem," she said in a statement. "Now the people want action."

The conclusions and urgency of the new Office of Conservation report in some ways fly in the face of presentations that Louisiana Geological Survey hydrologist Douglas Carlson and John Johnston III, the survey's assistant director emeritus, made to the commission late last year.

Those researchers pointed out that the aquifer has enough supply in the ground, without any additional rain, for another 250 years and the advancing salt front in key aquifer sands won't reach drinking water infrastructure for at least 15 years.

In a presentation to the commission on Dec. 9, Johnston, a geologist and retired LSU researcher, said the salt water intrusion problem isn't a severe threat to long-term sustainability of the aquifer, but a "geologically simple problem." He said an array of scavenger wells could "stop salt water intrusion cold in its tracks."

"It can be stopped," he said. "It's a problem, not a crisis." 

The presentations rankled some commissioners then, as overlooking the costly impacts localized salt water intrusion in Baton Rouge could have on drinking water systems, but other commissioners said they believed the researchers were giving a solid assessment. 

On Monday, Nelson Morvant, the commission chairman, said he couldn't yet offer a full response to the Office of Conservation report but said he agreed with Carlson and Johnston's take on the aquifer's sustainability and the benefits scavenger wells could offer in protecting drinking water systems in Baton Rouge.

He said the commission wants to work with the Office of Conservation but use science in reaching future regulatory determinations.

Citing past scientific reports and modeling since the mid-1990s, the latest Office of Conservation report does acknowledge that drinking water quantity and quality are sustainable across the Southern Hills Aquifer, but outside East Baton Rouge Parish. Inside the parish, which has the largest population in the 10-parish aquifer system and where some of the heaviest industrial use occurs, continued pumping will farther depress groundwater levels in important layers of the aquifer and encourage more salt water encroachment, the report finds.   

The report concludes that "reductions in groundwater use are the most effective way to remediate water level declines and saltwater intrusion in local aquifers."

In trying to make that case, the report points to an established body of existing data, including modeling from the U.S. Geological Survey that is now six years old.

Yet, the Office of Conservation report adds that the current situation doesn't constitute the kind of immediate threat that would allow the office to take advantage of its broad emergency powers. 

Instead, the report suggests there is enough data pointing to the continuing threat from salt water intrusion — what the report calls "ample material" — to allow existing well owners to petition the office to consider declaring the Baton Rouge area an "area of groundwater concern" or even a "critical area of groundwater concern."

The regulatory declaration, which would follow after a public hearing and would have to be supported with evidence, would allow the office to create a plan to preserve and manage the aquifer, including education campaigns and incentives to cut groundwater use.

If the area of groundwater concern is deemed "critical," the state office can order groundwater use reductions. At least some of the major well users that could seek the designation, however, are also some of the heaviest users of the aquifer. They could be most affected by ordered reductions in groundwater pumping.

The report says no users have ever sought the "area of concern" declaration in the aquifer, but Orr, the LEAN director, said Monday her group is looking into whether it can put in an application.

"Our drinking water is a precious but finite resource that the people feel must be managed correctly and protected for future generations," she said.

In normal conditions, the Office of Conservation shares oversight of the Southern Hills Aquifer with the groundwater commission.

After a series of brainstorming and development meetings in the fall, the groundwater commission agreed in December to pursue the second phase of creating a 50-year strategic plan for the region's groundwater use. A scope of work for that phase, which is expected to require costly data gathering, hasn't been finalized.

In a meeting last week, the commissioners were asked to review a draft scope and offer comments ahead of subcommittee meetings in March, so the scope could be ready for a vote in April.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.