The regional groundwater commission is thinking about increasing the fee charged to pump water out of the aquifer beneath Baton Rouge to pay for a new study intended to provide a long-term plan for protecting the water supply.

The Capital Area Groundwater Commission agreed at its latest meeting to hire researchers with the Water Institute of the Gulf to study the Southern Hills Aquifer, which supplies water for drinking and industrial use.

The first phase of the study is expected to last 14 months and cost $237,000. A second phase would cost about the same or a bit less, commission executive director Tony Duplechin said. After that, the commission would have to decide what steps to take to preserve the groundwater supply.

An underground fault runs roughly along Interstate 10 beneath Baton Rouge. To the south, the groundwater is salty, and saltwater has gradually crept across the fault line as freshwater is pumped out of the northern side.

The Baton Rouge Water Co. has installed a scavenger well to suck saltwater away from one of its freshwater wells, but the government itself has never really come up with a long-term plan to address the problem, said commissioner Matt Reonas, of the state Office of Conservation.

Commissioner William Daniel, who represents East Baton Rouge Parish, agreed. He and Reonas said the commission has done some modeling of saltwater intrusion and identified potential problems but hasn't come up with solutions.

The commission's members asked Water Institute staff what kinds of options might be on the table but were told data will have to be collected first — not just about the aquifer, but about how the population and water consumption has changed over the years.

Some ideas floated in the past include more scavenger wells, injecting saltwater deep underground, further limiting industrial pumping and restricting the sale of water out of the district.

"I just think it's time to move forward with a long-term plan," said commission Chairman Barry Hugghins, who represents West Baton Rouge Parish.

The first steps will include gathering all the data and modeling done so far and laying out exactly what the commission hopes to accomplish, said Alyssa Dausman, the Water Institute's vice president for science.

"This is a deep problem. It's going to require deep engagement," Reonas said.

The commission and its partners need to consider the aquifer not only as an environmental issue, Reonas said, but how the decisions will affect the economy and public health.

Commissioner Todd Talbot, who represents ExxonMobil, said it is important for everyone to agree on what they want to accomplish from the get-go.

Down the road in Phase 2, the Water Institute will fill in gaps in the data, including places where scientific advancement will allow for better information. Then they'll recommend various alternatives available to the commission, which will have to decide how to proceed.

Dausman said the Water Institute has staff that can help the commission hunt for financing and reputable contractors.

To pay for the research and improvements, Hugghins suggested raising the pumping fees paid by industrial facilities and utility companies. They pay a fee of $10 for every million gallons pumped. Private and shallow wells are exempt, as are users who pump water solely for agriculture.

Hugghins suggested raising the fee to $15 per million gallons for three years, which would bring in an additional $280,000.

Ultimately, the commission decided to contract with the Water Institute but tabled the fee increase. The board can pay for the first phase of he study with existing funds, and Baton Rouge Water Co. representative Dennis McGehee suggested looking at the commission's finances more closely to determine how much of a fee increase is necessary.

Hugghins said the pumping fee isn't a major expense for individual households because it's so dispersed. What's more important is raising the funds to make sure the aquifer remains healthy in the years and decades to come. The $10 fee on a million gallons trickles down to about 8 to 10 cents per household — a trivial amount, he said.

"But if you turn your tap on and there's no water, it's not so trivial anymore," he said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.