When it comes to Baton Rouge drinking water, the foxes are guarding the hen house, according to environmental groups that want to shake up the groundwater commission and kick out several members.

Industrialists have pointed to several water conservation measures they've undertaken, and the chairman of the board said he believe that good-intentioned but misguided activists are inventing a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

Baton Rouge sits atop a geological fault line that runs roughly along interstates 10 and 12. The ground under south Baton Rouge is contaminated with salt water, but north of the fault, freshwater is pumped to the surface for drinking and industrial use. Over the decades, saltwater has steadily leached across the fault line, contaminating the aquifer.

The Capital Area Groundwater Commission manages the aquifer and draws its 16 members from local and state government agencies, industrial companies, utility businesses and farmers. 

State Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, has introduced legislation that would restrict commission membership. Anyone who works for or contracts with one of the companies that regularly draws groundwater would be barred from serving on the board.

At the same time, the bill would introduce a new seat for environmental groups and allow the governor to appoint the board chair, who is currently elected from among the commissioners. Finally, it would officially declare the aquifer under Baton Rouge to be an area of critical concern, which could lead to pumping restrictions.

"There has been inaction in the Capital Area Groundwater Commission ... because Exxon and Georgia-Pacific dominate it," said Andrew Jacoby, the attorney who helped draft the legislation on behalf of several environmental groups, including the Green Army.

"It's sort of your quintessential fox guarding the hen house. ... It's such a clear conflict of interest," he said.

It may appear that commissioners' hands are tied if they have to make decisions that affect their employers' bottom line, Marcelle said.

"It's kind of a no-brainer for me," she said.

"Everybody should come to the table with the mindset of 'What's the best for the water system?' ... Just do what's right. Sometimes what's right costs us."

The overall goal of altering the membership, adding a conservation seat and allowing the governor to appoint the chair is "to get some independent voices who feel like they're empowered to make policy decisions," said Kathy Wascom, lobbyist for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. Her group along with the local chapter of the Sierra Club would appoint the new commissioner should Marcelle's bill pass.

Exxon and Georgia-Pacific, meanwhile, have defended their performance and pointed out that they each control only one of the 16 commission seats.

"We believe that industrial user representation on the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission gives the state a balanced viewpoint when combined with representation from public water suppliers, local governments and the general public," Georgia-Pacific officials wrote in a statement.

"Industry representatives also bring expertise about ground water engineering to the discussion and often are the ones who can implement changes to protect public water supply. Most professional statewide boards are made up of a mix of professional and independent members. Once again this brings an important balance for decisions to be made."

Exxon has already invested in projects to reduce its groundwater use and draws about half the water it needs from the Mississippi, the company wrote in a statement. Furthermore, Exxon is supportive of the scavenger wells being planned by the groundwater commission.

Scavenger wells suck salt water away from freshwater wells. Groundwater commission Chairman Barry Hugghins would eventually like a row of scavenger wells along the fault line to protect the fresh water. However, there is disagreement over whether that is an adequate response. Marcelle compares the scavenger wells to "a band-aid on a stab wound."

Hugghins accused Marcelle of engaging in political grandstanding to sincere but misguided environmental groups who ignore the facts.

"This is sort of a solution in search of a problem," he said of the new bill. "The sky is not falling."

Hugghins, who represents West Baton Rouge Parish, tried to game out how the bill would work if it passes.

Should the industry employees be kicked off the board, companies are likely to replace them with lobbyists from the oil and chemical associations, further politicizing a board that should be run by scientists and engineers, he said.

He's wary of an environmental appointee as well. Hugghins said he'd like to welcome conservation groups to the table; he just wants to make sure they have a technical background. 

Hays Town is at that intersection. A retired architect who turned to engineering later in life, environmentalists say he's responsible for getting groups like the Green Army to pay attention to the aquifer. He has been nominated to serve on the commission, not by the conservationists but by East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome. He is to take the seat currently held by a city-parish public works engineer.

Attempts to reach Town for an interview in the past week were unsuccessful, though in past interviews, he has called on industrial water users to switch over to using the river so the aquifer can be retained for public consumption.

Town's appointment must still be approved by the Governor's Office, which has ultimate authority over who serves on the board. That fact, as well as the fact that the state Office of Conservation hasn't imposed the sort of pumping restrictions that could come from Marcelle's bill, show that the groundwater commission is operating with the state's tacit approval, Hugghins said.

The commission or the conservation office could take steps like pumping restrictions, but professionals with both groups have determined they aren't necessary, and they don't need the Legislature to come meddle in their business, Hugghins said.

"I don't understand why they want to go down this road," he said.


Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.