070217 BR Aquifer cross-section.jpg

A local commission is inching forward with plans for a study to see if restrictions on Baton Rouge-area industries or other major conservation measures are necessary to preserve the area’s drinking water — but it hasn’t figured out yet how to pay for it.

Some environmentalists fear that encroaching saltwater will endanger the Southern Hills Aquifer, which supplies water to more than 600,000 people. They want to require local refineries, chemical plants and other industries to use water from the Mississippi River instead, conserving aquifer water for residents and limiting the spread of the salt water.

But some members of the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission and industrial leaders say the aquifer has plenty of water and that saltwater intrusion is a localized problem that can be managed with less expansive measures.

In the summer of 2018, the Commission and the Water Institute of the Gulf agreed to start a multi-year effort to study the aquifer and saltwater intrusion. The goal would be to better forecast water use and weigh potentially controversial or costly management ideas for the next 50 years: things like pumping restrictions; conservation measures by the general public, perhaps through graduated water rates; or private partnerships to create new water supplies.

The commission finished the heart of the project’s first phase in October, brainstorming the broad goals for the 50-year plan. On Thursday, the group voted to enter Phase Two, which is commissioning in-depth research on the aquifer, after a series of contentious meetings.

"After 45 years, I'm thrilled that they seem to be moving in the right direction to conserve and save a valuable resource for everyone, for everyone," said Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which has advocated for industrial users to get off the aquifer.

Some environmentalists and commissioners have expressed frustration at the slow pace of the project. They have accused commissioners who represent industry of filibustering the plan because those industries will have to pay to switch water sources.

Despite the vote last week, a big question remains unanswered: How can the commission come up with the $1.6 million the Water Institute says it needs to do the study? The commission’s annual budget is about $1.3 million.

One proposal to come up with the money had been to double pumping fees charged to major water users. Those fees are also filtered down to households and businesses.

They would cost the average household 12 cents more per month on their bills, but larger users would pay much more — one estimate put ExxonMobill’s bill at $180,000 more per year.

While that fee idea hasn’t gained much traction, Danny Lee, an ExxonMobil spokesman, said company leaders want to help fund the study and are considering a “range of options" to support the Water Institute's next phase.

"The exploration of options underpins our commitment to having an evidence-based strategic plan inform our region’s groundwater related decisions," he said.

The commission been criticized, including in a legislative audit last year, over the failure to take more forceful action despite ample powers and a 1974 mandate from the Legislature to halt and mitigate saltwater intrusion that has been occurring since the 1950s. Heavy groundwater pumping, especially near an underground fault that serves as a partial barrier to the salt, continues to draw salt water intrusion slowly northward into Baton Rouge.

Commissioners who have raised questions about the Water Institute program say they’re just doing their due diligence, making sure the proposals are rooted in good science.

"Nobody ever said, 'We're not going to move next year with the Water Institute, or somebody, to start attacking this problem,'" Commissioner Nelson Morvant, commission chairman and an Entergy employee, said in one of the recent committee discussions.

But some aren’t convinced.

“It's always next year,” Commissioner William Daniel retorted to Morvant.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.