The Southern Hills Aquifer

Image of the Southern Hills Aquifer system provided by the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission. Southern Hills provides water for drinking and commercial use throughout the Baton Rouge metro area.

The chairman of the local groundwater commission says he isn't going to let "absurd" state laws prevent Ascension Parish from having a say in managing the area's main aquifer.

Earlier this year, the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission voted to include Ascension Parish into its district and give the local government a seat at the table. The commission ran the decision by the state Attorney General's Office for an opinion on the legal consequences of the move.

The Attorney General's Office recently released its opinion, which said that while the commission has authority to bring new parishes into the district and those parishes must have representation, the board's overall number of commissioners is set at 17 by state law.

Giving Ascension Parish a spot would require an 18th seat.

"Because the language of the statute regarding the number of members is mandatory, and historically the Legislature amends the statute to increase the number of its members, this office is of the opinion the Legislature would need to amend the law to allow for the Board to have eighteen members instead of seventeen," the opinion stated.

Groundwater commission Chairman Barry Hugghins -- noting that attorney general opinions are advisory and don't have the effect of law -- said the board will keep going down the path it's on.

Hugghins said the law makes no sense.

"It's poorly written, and the consequences are never thought out," he said.

The commission could give each parish a voice and stick to 17 seats, but to do so would have to boot a utility company, industrial corporation or agricultural representative -- all parties with an interest in the region's underground water supply. Other members represent the state's Department of Environmental Quality and Office of Conservation.

Hugghins said he won't toss any of them off; if somebody has a problem with an extra member, they can take it up in court.

The chairman said he's got cover from legal staff in the Legislature and from the governor's office, which confirmed Ascension Chief Administrative Officer Kenneth Dawson to represent the parish.

Dawson did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Some questioned the inclusion of Ascension into the groundwater commission in the first place. The entire parish lies south of the Southern Hills Aquifer, but Ascension residents drink its water, which is piped in via the Baton Rouge Water Company.

As fresh water is pumped out of the aquifer, salt water leeches across an underground fault line which runs roughly along Interstate 10. Amid discussions about protecting the groundwater, most conversation has centered on limiting the amount that can be drawn by companies such as Georgia Pacific, ExxonMobil and Entergy, though a few people have called for restrictions on sales out of the district to which Ascension now belongs.

Hugghins said he's looking for legislators to sponsor a new bill in the upcoming session to do away with any cap on the number of commissioners, so long as every seat is warranted.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.