070217 BR Aquifer cross-section.jpg

The capital area takes its drinking water so much for granted that some residents would rather leave a running hose in a leaky pool than repair the crack, would prefer to turn their sprinklers on a brick house to cool the masonry instead of turning on the air conditioning, Joey Normand said.

The former mayor of Brusly appeared at Tuesday's meeting of the local groundwater commission to implore the agency to create conservation incentives to safeguard the aquifer serving the Baton Rouge region.

Commission members are trying to come up with solutions, but the process has stalled.

A geological fault runs beneath Interstate 10. South of the fault line, the groundwater is salty. The salt water creeps across the line when fresh water is pumped out for use in homes, businesses and industrial campuses.

The groundwater authority plans to contract with Water Institute scientists to determine how to preserve the fresh water. The commission agreed in June to pay $237,000 for the first 14-month phase.

To expedite the process, the groundwater commission planned to broker the deal through the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, but so far the agencies haven't been able to sign a memorandum of understanding. Chairman Barry Hugghins blamed turnover in CPRA leadership.

Water Institute geologists have done some advance work but are still waiting on the state to sign the contract, vice president for science Alyssa Dausman said. Matt Reonas, who represents the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, said the state's Office of Conservation would lean on the CPRA to sign the documents.

Several ideas have been advanced to extend the life of the aquifer: further curbing industrial withdrawal, digging scavenger wells, limiting the sale of water outside the area.

Normand advocated raising fees as a way to encouraging households to conserve water. He still wants the first 10,000 gallons per month or so to be affordable, but above that amount, higher prices could induce people not to waste water.

Russel Honoré cheered Normand on. The retired army lieutenant general and Green Army leader also repeated his call to force industrial users to use Mississippi River water rather than rely on the aquifer.

"We ought to have an adult conversation. … It shouldn't be a taboo question," Honoré said.

Commission members said they hoped the Water Institute would be able to provide clarity on the best way forward. Members like William Daniel also noted they will have to figure out how to handle the repercussions of any decision. If tap water gets more expensive, will that extra money go toward aquifer protection or just line the pockets of utility providers, he asked.

The commission hopes to learn more about the state of the aquifer by early next year, when they start getting data from a new test well near the I-10/I-110 split.

The commission agreed Tuesday to lease some land for the well for $11,000 for the first year, with an option to extend the arrangement for a few more months if necessary. The well is expected to cost $200,000 to $250,000 and will give the commission a chance to determine the extent of the saltwater intrusion. 

In other business, the commission unanimously selected vice chairman Nelson Morvant, a senior environmental analyst for Entergy, to serve as chairman next year. Daniel, who represents East Baton Rouge and works for Ascension Parish government, will serve as vice chair.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.