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A strategic plan to decide how to protect the Baton Rouge area's drinking water from potential saltwater intrusion appears to be moving forward, now that a new leader is in charge.

Gary Beard, a former Baton Rouge-area legislator and engineer, took over as full-time director of the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission about a month ago. On Monday, he got commissioners' backing for a four-year plan to pay for most of the $2.3 million in technical work to inform how to best manage the aquifer that supplies drinking water to the region.

"Basically, we've talked about it long enough. Now's the time to implement it and to move forward," Beard said in a later interview.

Among the issues the plan must address is whether industrial users should be required to stop pumping from the aquifer and instead draw water from the Mississippi River. Some environmental groups say that's necessary to prevent saltwater from leaching into the water supply.

The sometimes fractious commission has agreed to pursue a long-term plan with The Water Institute of the Gulf. But it had not agreed on how to pay for a crucial second phase of that plan.

Some commissioners wanted pumping fee increases; some wanted to seek out other revenue sources.

Beard's solution -- to which the commission agreed unanimously Monday -- would direct 75% of annual pumping fee revenue, which had been set aside for new saltwater monitoring wells, to help pay for the plan.

The fees, currently $20 per million gallons of water pumped, are paid by the largest groundwater users in a six-parish area, but the fees trickle down to smaller businesses and individual homeowners. 

The commission is under pressure from state auditors, the state Office of Conservation and environmental groups to take a more proactive stance in attacking long-term salt water intrusion into the Southern Hills Aquifer.

Some researchers say the vast aquifer, which is the drinking water source for 600,000 people in the Baton Rouge area, has ample supplies of fresh water -- but they are being encroached on by salt intrusion worsened by increased pumping. 

Part of the new phase of strategic planning effort would build off the work of the U.S. Geological Survey and LSU researcher Frank Tsai to create a new groundwater model.

The model could one day tell commissioners how a new well would affect other nearby wells, as well as the aquifer overall, officials said Monday. The commission regulates and permits groundwater pumping in the region.

Beard told the commissioners that he had also met with the Water Institute, USGS and LSU to work out how the three agencies would share some of the second phase work. He said he also honed some of the institute's original plan for the second phase, agreeing to do $200,000 in the work himself. 

Part that solution also involved adding work for the Water Institute and extending USGS's existing contract with the commission, all at added cost. 

The redirected fees help prop up Beard's financing plan, along with spending from the commission's budgetary reserves. But even still, his plan anticipates budget shortfalls by 2022-2023.

Beard told the commissioners he expected to come back to them around this time next year with a plan to pursue funding from the Legislature and, if that didn't work, to seek an increase in pumping fees.

Before the commission agreed to direct pumping fee revenue to the strategic plan, Commissioners Mark Walton and Mark Frey raised concerns about having told users one thing about the fees through the state rule making process and now using them for something else. 

In 2016 and again in 2019, the commission had increased fees from $5 to $10 and then from $10 to $20 per million gallons for the monitoring wells. Rule-making language mentions wells aimed at addressing salt water intrusion and work to determine where the wells should be located. 

Beard told the commissioners their attorneys determined a resolution clarifying the use of the fees was all that was needed to direct the money toward the plan because language in the rulemaking included discussion of studying where to place the wells.

Beard said if he had to install monitoring wells today, he wouldn't know where to put them. One has already been installed previously.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.