Shortage Fears Hit Water-Rich, Policy-Poor Louisiana

 

Perched on the eastern bank of one of the largest river systems in the world, Louisiana's capitol of Baton Rouge has a potential drinking problem.

Drop a well 1500 feet from the middle of LSU's campus into one of the sands of the state's Southeast aquifer system and you're likely to bring up something that tastes more like Gulf Coast brine than a bottle of spring water.

That's because overdrafting, primarily for irrigation, public consumption and industrial cooling, has sucked so much freshwater out of that part of the ground, according to local aquifer specialist John Lovelace of the U.S. Geological Survey. Vigorous pumping has begun to attract the far more plentiful supplies of saltwater originating in the Gulf of Mexico, nearly 60 miles away as the crow flies. Not to worry, says Eugene Owen of the Baton Rouge Water Company, at least not in the short term. The city sits over freshwater sands at a number of other depths and draws its drinking water from deeper pockets mostly from 2400 feet beneath the surface.

"Here in Baton Rouge, we've got an abundant water supply," Owen told a gathering of over 350 Louisiana farmers, industry representatives, resource advocates and legislators, as well as water experts from Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas at a statewide water summit last week.

Water consumers of all kinds seem to agree. Wells in the southern part of the state pump over one billion gallons daily out of the Southeast and Chicot aquifers to farms, lumber mills, industrial sites, power plants and residential taps.

Lovelace says that the Chicot aquifer, which nourishes rice fields and crawfish operations in southwestern Louisiana, is one of the most heavily pumped subterranean reservoirs in the nation, producing an average of 821 million gallons of water each day. Even at that rate, he says, pumping won't fully deplete the stock "any time in the next few centuries."

But there is little to suggest that withdrawals won't continue to accelerate. And neither Lovelace nor Owen nor any of those who attended the two-day meeting hosted by LSU's Agricultural Center believe that the state can afford to take its water resources for granted any longer.

Currently, Louisiana doesn't have a single law on its books regarding groundwater drawn for agricultural, industrial or municipal use. Now, after almost 60 years of periodic discussion and plenty of wishful thinking, the state is poised to dive into the complicated, unavoidably litigious world of water law.Last Thursday, after three months of work, the governor's water policy task force presented recommendations to guide Louisiana's quest to join the majority of states that have rules governing water resources. Later this spring, state Sen. James David Cain (D-Dry Creek) will cap months of travel to rally interest in the issue with the introduction of SB 1, an admittedly preliminary effort to regulate water extracted from underground supplies.

Cain says he doesn't want to take too much on at once. His bill does not address water quality or the use of surface water. Rather, it focuses solely on groundwater supplies, the state's leading source of fresh water. Among its provisions is the establishment of a necessary permit for any well pumping more than one million gallons per day. Wells already up and running would be grandfathered away from the requirement. "We're trying to step before we trot," he said.

Task force members have also said that they don't expect to make comprehensive, long-term policy recommendations before 2003.

"It's time we get into this. We've just had so much water, we haven't had to do it," Gov. Murphy J. "Mike" Foster told Stateline.org.

"We have a history of treating water as if it was free," said Marc Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.

Getting Down To Business

Saltwater intrusion is not Louisiana's only water problem. Sixty percent of the water used in the United States comes from above-ground rivers, lakes, streams and reservoirs, while the rest comes from under the earth. Louisiana nearly flips those numbers, relying upon aquifers for 56 percent of its freshwater supply.

That reliance has intensified in recent years. Since 1990, groundwater levels have dropped an average of one to three feet per year throughout the state and as much as six feet a year in some locations. Withdrawals from the Sparta aquifer that spans part or all of 15 parishes in northern Louisiana have increased 37 percent since 1985, when wells were taking out just about as much as the water cycle was putting in.

But lately, there hasn't been much rain available to recharge the aquifers, particularly in southern Louisiana. "Without a doubt, this drought of the last two years will rank as one of the grandaddies for the last 100 years," said state climatologist Jay Grymes.

Grymes expects that warmer temperatures this spring and summer will prompt plants and surface soils to consume or transpire more than the usual amount of the normal to below-normal rainfall in the forecast.

And last year, reports that water levels had dropped below a handful of intake pipes drew attention to another water challenge. With 13 power plants under construction or already generating in the state, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is considering applications for as many as 50 more.

The so-called "merchant" power plants, built on Louisiana soil and using an estimated seven to ten million gallons of Louisiana water to generate power - mostly for out of state customers - proved an especially powerful catalyst to arouse residents' ire. The issue put an initial wedge between Cain and Foster, who is still loathe to discourage the interest of the power industry and who continues to downplay the plant issue as a purely political distraction.

In fact, concern about merchant power, once the center of the water debate, seemed to fade into the background at the summit as representatives from several economic sectors came forward to offer their mea culpas.

"We in agriculture understand that ag has a problem" with its water habits, said Jackie Loewer, president of the Louisiana Rice Growers' Association. Representatives of lumber, chemical, municipal supply, fish and wildlife and natural resources interests joined Loewer in outlining their complicity -- and their ongoing needs.

Cain, still a merchant power gadfly, praised one plant for investing over $8 million in a switch to the use of more plentiful surface water resources during his keynote address at the summit. But he said his eyes really opened last year when a constitutional lawyer told him that any thirsty neighbor like the city of Houston could buy property in Louisiana, drill wells, and pipe water back home without any restrictions.

"We cannot go another year without passing some type of legislation," he said.

Water, Water Everywhere

Louisiana's water situation is unusual only in that it is the only state that appears to be actively building its water policy from the ground up.

Nearly every state in the country has some kind of water law regarding either surface supplies, aquifer withdrawals, or both. But in November, an informal DEQ survey of 37 states showed that seven others besides Louisiana Alabama, California, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas had no statutory authority over groundwater withdrawals, task force member Bo Bolourchi said.

Bolourchi directs the water resources section of the state Department of Transportation and Development and has been a leading light in Louisiana water circles for over 30 years. He traces the beginning of the state's lazy dialogue on water policy back to 1942 through a series of vague statements and non-committal reports paying homage to Louisiana's dependence on water.

Sixty years later, policymakers agree that their position may be advantageous if only because they can now take advantage of the trial-and-error tinkering of their neighbors.

Last October, a study released by the World Resources Institute found that "the world's freshwater systems are so degraded that its ability to support human, plant and animal life is greatly in peril." Shortages of both surface and groundwater supplies, and calls to shape policy in order to better deal with them, are welling up all over the country. The governors of Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wyoming all addressed water needs in their State of the State addresses this year.

  • States from Minnesota to New York are nervously watching the enormous freshwater reserves in the Great Lakes shrink for the third year in a row.
  • Forecasts for California ominously predict decades of drier-than-normal weather, indicating another obstacle for hydropower advocates and architects of the state's crippled utility system.
  • In just one example of interstate water conflicts, Maryland and Virginia continue to squabble over a Virginia county's request to dip another intake pipe into the Potomac river and meet the needs of its rapidly growing population. Similar conflicts persist between Nebraska and two of its neighbors, Kansas and Wyoming, and among Alabama, Florida and Georgia, and the states of the Colorado River basin.
  • Water levels in the massive Ogallala aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to northern Texas and reportedly holds as much fresh water as Lake Huron, are dropping swiftly. Irrigation accounted for 80 percent of the 6.2 million acre-feet withdrawn in Texas in 1995, as sparse Plains rainfall restored only 300,000 acre feet to a water source that dates back to the Pleistocene era. (An acre-foot of water is roughly what it would take to cover a football field with a foot of water.)

A Little Help From Its Friends

The word among water and legal experts is that solutions to Louisiana's water management problems are not going to come easily.

"When government starts talking about managing water, government is talking about regulating a resource, Them's fightin' words in the deep South, and in the West, to be sure," said Jackson attorney and former Mississippi DEQ director Jimmy Palmer.

It doesn't take long for water users to see the links connecting management, regulation and taxation, he said.

Palmer was one of several out-of-state advisors to present at the summit. He recalled his state's 1985 effort to introduce water permits in the place of the old system of prior appropriation, in which the most recent claimant to use of a water resource was the first one bumped during a shortage.

While nice in theory, permits are a "nightmare" to administer, Palmer said. He suggested housing all water responsibilities under one administrative roof and cautioned policymakers to settle in for what may become decades of experimentation.

"If your management [plan] is just regulation, it won't work. Your national guard is not big enough," said hydrologist Todd Fugitt of the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission. Fugitt counseled supplementing new rules with financial incentives, conservation programs, the development of alternative resources such as air and wastewater for cooling applications, and data collection.

Texas A&M resources economist Ronald Kaiser urged Louisiana to avoid rights-based policies and encourage discussions of mutual interest among water users. He said it is futile for farmers, lumber companies, oil refiners, and chemical makers who trade beyond Louisiana's borders to continue to argue against "water" exports as a way to keep the merchant power plants out.

Other suggestions from out-of-state advisors included management districts for selected, high-use areas and plenty of constituent participation.

Cain recognizes that trust among all parties is a serious matter. Among his bill's current provisions is the dilution of government's presence in the formation of a prospective state water board.

"The public doesn't trust DEQ. They don't trust [the Department of Natural Resources]. They don't trust the state," he said.

Back in his Baton Rouge office, Bo Bolourchi said the water summit, Cain's bill, the task force's report and the sustained interest of both Gov. Foster and the press gave him the first real indication since he took his first job with the state in 1965 that something might finally happen to preserve the Bayou State's precious water resources.

 
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