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 commission has failed to effectively regulate the aquifer beneath Baton Rouge, threatening further saltwater intrusion affecting the supply for industry and drinking water, state auditors wrote in a report released Monday.

Environmentalists felt vindicated by the report and repeated their call to remove board members who represent companies which draw from the aquifer, which includes thirsty users such as the Baton Rouge Water Company, Georgia-Pacific, ExxonMobil and Entergy.

Leaders at the Capital Area Groundwater Conservation Commission, meanwhile, claimed parts of the report were based on inaccurate data.

The 55-page performance audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office is available on the agency's website.

An underground fault runs beneath Baton Rouge roughly along Interstate 10. South of the fault, the groundwater is contaminated with salt. When users north of the fault pump water from the aquifer, it allows saltwater to pass across into the fresh area.

The groundwater commission is supposed to regulate pumpage from the aquifer and combat saltwater intrusion, but auditors found several oversight deficiencies, from failing to monitor wells to allowing unlimited withdrawal.

Auditors also note at least six of the 18 board members receive salaries or benefits from the very companies the board is supposed to regulate.

“That is totally corrupt because they’re regulating themselves,” said retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who now leads the Green Army environmental group. He has called on industry to stop pumping from the aquifer and switch to the Mississippi River to preserve the drinking water supply and has said that having board members from industrial companies hampers that effort.

Kathy Wascom of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network said it’s time to bring in members “who actually feel they have the ability to regulate … without fear of reprisals” from their bosses.

Board chairman Nelson Morvant, who works for Entergy, disagreed. Local professionals who work in the industry can provide “expertise you’re not going to find anywhere else,” he said.

There is a bill pending in the legislature that would address the makeup of the commission, though it would only add a seat for Ascension, which joined last year. Wascom said she’s not yet considering that legislation as a vehicle to remove industrial representatives, but she argued that the state Board of Ethics should research the matter.

Auditors found a litany of other problems. Compared to other districts, pumpage fees are still low, though they will soon double from $10 to $20 per million gallons drawn. Furthermore, although Ascension Parish entered the district 11 months ago, the commission has yet to begin regulating wells and collecting fees there, the report says.

"Without effective regulation, saltwater intrusion threatens the long-term sustainability of the aquifer and groundwater resources," the report summary states.

Auditors also allege the commission doesn't have complete information on 87 percent of the 2,600 wells in its database. Specifically, the commission doesn’t have records noting how much those wells are capable of pumping, “which is a key component in determining whether the Commission should regulate a well,” the report states.

That number, however, is based on outdated state Department of Natural Resources data, said Groundwater Commission Executive Director Tony Duplechin. Many wells still on the books have been turned off or destroyed, he said. DNR spokesman Patrick Courreges admitted it's possible that not many of the state's records — many old, paper and sometimes even handwritten — are up to date.

At the heart of it all, the auditors wrote, “while the Commission has implemented certain measures to regulate the aquifer, these measures have not sufficiently addressed saltwater intrusion caused by the withdrawal of groundwater from the aquifer.”

Duplechin and Morvant argued that the Commission is taking meaningful steps, such as preparing to dig a scavenger well to suck salt water away from freshwater pumps and hiring the Water Institute of the Gulf to research further steps.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering whether to declare the aquifer an area of concern. A bill to study the matter is pending. It was authored by state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, who could not be reached for comment Monday but has said the aquifer should be preserved for drinking. Honore hopes designating the aquifer as an area of concern would pave the way to force industrial users to switch from using groundwater to using the river.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.