The Capital Area Groundwater Commission had a feisty, three-hour meeting Monday morning, the first full gathering since it came under increased scrutiny from the state.
Two main issues were on the table — passing a budget for the next fiscal year and discussing how to address management of the aquifer under Baton Rouge, since the commission is now required to submit semi-annual reports to the Louisiana Legislature.
As the water supply under Baton Rouge slowly fills with salt, some officials have called on …
A geological fault line runs roughly along I-12. South of it, the groundwater is contaminated with saltwater, but it's been leaking to the north for decades, which will eventually threaten the wells used to pump water for drinking and industrial use. Though that won't happen for decades, environmentalists and others have called for proactive measures to be taken before the issue becomes a crisis.
New East Baton Rouge Commissioner William Daniel was incredulous that the commission has done so little to combat the salinification since it was formed in the 1970s.
"We have known about saltwater intrusion … and here it is 2017 and it seems like we are in no particular hurry," he said.
"This is the lifeblood of our parish. … I guess I'm a little stunned that we aren't further along," he said.
The Baton Rouge Water Company is already seeing salt in two of its downtown area wells, water production manager Dennis McGehee told the commission. The water is still usable because the levels are low and they can blend it with additional fresh water, though the wells have been switched from around the clock pumping to stand-by backups.
At-large commissioner Mark Walton pointed out that the commission has dug a scavenger well, which sucks saltwater away from freshwater wells. The process of addressing the intrusion just takes time and lots of scientific study.
"We're going in the right direction, we just aren't there yet," he said.
Can the process move more quickly, Daniel asked. Even if it costs more now, it may save money in the long term if it protects the water supply. Perhaps the commission can begin a project in the short-term while it waits for every contingency of the modeling to be completed, because, Daniel said, he won't even be on the board by the time it's finished. His first term ends Dec. 1, 2019.
It's worth considering, said Department of Environmental Commissioner John Jennings. However, the scientists from LSU and the U.S. Geological survey were not on hand Monday — the day before July Fourth — so the matter was left unresolved.
Department of Natural Resources commissioner Matt Reonas has pointed out that financing for work is likely available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if the Groundwater Commission can get a project off the ground.
In addition to adding a new scavenger well, Walton listed a couple options on the table: reduce pumping or inject freshwater into the ground to create a "hydraulic barrier."
"It works on paper, but implementation is very difficult," he said. "It's just terribly expensive."
Environmental groups, the private water company and others have called on industrial sites like Georgia Pacific and Exxon-Mobile to stop using the aquifer altogether and switch to river water. Walton disagreed; those companies pumping pulls water away from the residential pumps farther to the east.
"If you stop industrial pumping it doesn't solve the problem," he said.
Conservationists argue that industrial pumping should be discouraged because it contributes to the overall salinification, and some steps have been taken to restrict their pumping at certain depths.
Protecting the people's water supply should take primacy over industrial profits, argued ret. Gen Russel Honoré of the Green Army. While the problem is still decades away from reaching crisis, leaders must consider the effects of their actions — or inaction — on their children, he said.
Honoré called on the commission to create a 10- or 20-year plan, in large part to let industrial companies know what they can expect in the future and how they may need to prepare to change their water use.
Both he and a pair of north Louisiana visitors also told the commission to work with the state to craft laws that will help them protect their aquifers. The Sparta aquifer in the northern part of the state has long had trouble maintaining it's groundwater, but the groundwater commission overseeing it lacks the authority to take needed action, said Lindsay Gouedy, the Sparta commission's education coordinator.
There was some legislation last year that required the Capital Area commission to begin sending the Legislature semi-annual reports on the state of that aquifer. The law also requires the commission follow public meeting and advertising laws.
Monday, chairman and West Baton Rouge representative Barry Hugghins said the commission's ad hoc committee, which has been criticized for meeting in private, "is no longer sanctioned,"though he added that "everyone has the right of free association."
Daniel asked about public advertising, telling the commission's executive director that he should have publicly advertised a $10,000 contract noted on the commission's upcoming 2017-18 budget. Tony Duplechin, the director, said a contractor was recommended to him and he brought company representatives in to demonstrate their services, which relate to online bill payments.
Reonas questioned the $70,000 salary of the commission's administrative assistant.
"We're paying too much for this position," he said.
Some wondered if the title should be changed to deputy director or special assistant to better describe the employee's actual duties. Ultimately they decided to draft a letter to the state Attorney General seeking guidance.