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.

The local groundwater board intends to double the fees for water pumped for residential and industrial use in an effort to secure more funding to protect the aquifer beneath Baton Rouge.

The Capital Area Groundwater Commission claims $10 for every million gallons pumped, but its board voted Tuesday to raise the amount to $20.

The commission collected about $407,000 from pumping fees in the six months between July and January, according to a report provided Tuesday. Board members worried that without more money, they wouldn't be able to address saltwater leaking across an underground fault line which threatens to contaminate the freshwater supply.

Commissioner Barry Hugghins said that, because rates are already low, a typical family might pay an extra $1.60 per month to cover the new rate. The board voted unanimously for the new rate but will schedule a public hearing before any change takes effect.

The board has recently taken some new steps to fight saltwater intrusion, such as hiring the Water Institute to perform a three-year study of the problem that is expected to cost about $750,000. They've also planned to dig scavenger wells to suck up saltwater and pipe it out or inject it deeper underground.

In addition to the added costs, the groundwater commission is also taking a financial hit due to the closure of parts of the local paper mill run by Georgia-Pacific, which draws a significant amount of water from the aquifer. Hugghins estimated an annual loss of pumpage fees around $90,000. Georgia-Pacific, along with the Baton Rouge Water Co., ExxonMobil and Entergy all have seats on the 17-member groundwater commission. Chairman Nelson Morvant, who represents Entergy, said Georgia-Pacific will continue to tap the aquifer and that he's heard of no suggestions its board seat be removed.

Commissioner Matt Reonas, of the state Office of Conservation, asked whether last year's decision to bring Ascension Parish into the district could help offset the cost of losing income from Georgia-Pacific. The parish lies south of the aquifer, but residents and businesses use water pumped in by the Water Co. Wells in Ascension are probably too shallow and too little-used to make a major contribution though the issue is still under review, said executive director Anthony Duplechin and commissioner Mark Walton.

For the sake of fairness, the groundwater commission needs to figure that out and start collecting whatever it's due, said commissioner William Daniel, who works for Ascension Parish but represents East Baton Rouge Parish. Daniel was among the commissioners who were concerned about the board's ability to protect the supply of water used for drinking and industry.

The region should have a better idea of the scope of the problem by the end of the year, when the Water Institute plans to issue a report looking at models of the aquifer and solutions pioneered in other aquifers, said institute Vice President Alyssa Dausman. She anticipates holding public workshops in August and September to solicit input. Past discussions have included calls to limit industrial pumping, to prohibit out-of-district sale of water and to institute tiered fees.

Reonas wondered whether, for example, rate payers in Pointe Coupee or the Felicianas parishes should be charged less because they're farther from the fault line where the salt is creeping in. Other commissioners were resistant — Walton, because it's not permitted under the law, and Daniel, because it would pit parishes against each other. The matter was dropped without a vote.

Reonas also questioned how his colleagues decided on a $10 rate increase. Hugghins said the amount would permit the agency to pay for existing work as it goes, and other commissioners emphasized that the rate can be further adjusted as they determine how to proceed in the future. 

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.