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Amid Rising Seas And Record Storms, Louisiana's Water Is Running Low

Austin R. Ramsey
Groundwater is being stretched thin as Louisiana's population grows and the climate changes.

BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana has a water problem. But it has nothing to do with its losing battle against rising seas, rivers that routinely spill their banks or increasingly violent storms that pummel its coast.

This problem is buried in aquifers deep beneath the state’s swampy landscape, where the groundwater that nearly two-thirds of Louisianans rely on for drinking and bathing is rapidly diminishing.

Groundwater levels in and around Louisiana are falling faster than almost anywhere else in the country, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. A monthslong investigation by the Investigative Reporting Workshop and WWNO/WRKF traced the problem to decades of overuse, unregulated pumping by industries and agriculture, and scant oversight or action from legislative committees rife with conflicts of interest.

Experts warn that all of these factors, combined with the effects of climate change, put Louisiana on the brink of a groundwater crisis that could resemble the water shortages Western states have long grappled with.

“Will restaurants no longer be able to put a giant glass of water on your table when you go in to have your seafood platter?” asked Craig Colten, a Louisiana State University professor who has studied water issues for years. “Will there be limits on how frequently you can wash your car in your driveway or water your lawn? These are the kinds of things that are commonplace in California. Is that part of our water future?”

Agriculture consumes more than 61% of Louisiana’s groundwater. Chemical producers and other industries use 14%, more than industries in any other state except California. The public uses what’s left.

Most states have regional commissions that oversee their vital groundwater resources. Texas, for example, has 98.

Louisiana has just two.

In Baton Rouge, the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission was formed in 1974 to oversee management of the Southern Hills Aquifer System, which provides drinking water for the region.

Not only has it been criticized by residents and public officials for being ineffective, but now it also faces a suite of charges for ethics violations. The Louisiana Board of Ethics recently charged five of the commission’s 18 members with conflicts of interest, because they are employed by companies the commission is supposed to be regulating. The five remain on the commission while their cases proceed.

Democratic State Rep. Denise Marcelle has been trying to draw attention to the commissioners’ potential conflicts for years.

“I've always thought it was unethical for them to be serving in that capacity,” she said. “But they said, ‘this is the way we’ve been doing it.’”

The IRW and WWNO/WRKF spent six months exploring the extent to which Louisiana’s groundwater is diminishing and the efforts the state has — or hasn’t — taken to address the problem. Reporters interviewed dozens of local, state and national water resource experts, analyzed groundwater monitoring data and reviewed more than 100 scientific studies.

The investigation found that:

  • At least 12 separate reports — done at taxpayers’ expense — have urged state legislators to create a comprehensive water management plan. They’ve failed to provide such a plan.
  • Louisiana’s water laws are notoriously lax. Property owners — including industries and agriculture — can take as much groundwater as they want without getting the state’s permission or compensating their neighbors.
  • Industries withdraw more groundwater per person per day in Louisiana than in any other state or territory.
  • More than one-third of the 25 legislators who sit on the two committees responsible for water management have business ties to major groundwater users. All but three have accepted campaign contributions from them.

Without leadership at the state level, some communities have taken on water management themselves.

Credit Austin R. Ramsey / IRW
West Monroe Environmental Quality Manager Terry Emory stands in front of a multi-faceted wastewater treatment plant that ships clean water to a nearby paper mill.

Twenty years ago, the small, northern Louisiana town of West Monroe started running out of water. The biggest user was the local paper mill, which also happened to be the biggest employer.

So officials came up with a plan to expand their sewage treatment plant so it could provide water for the mill. It cost $20 million and took years to build. But now they’re turning wastewater into usable water and saving the aquifer — a crisis averted.

“People can’t see the aquifer,” said Terry Emory, the city’s environmental quality manager. “You can’t convince people in Louisiana that they’re going to run out of water, because everywhere they look, they see water. That doesn’t mean it’s a feasible source of water to do anything with. But they see it, so there’s no problem.”

A Crisis Unknown

No one seems to know exactly how much water is in Louisiana’s 11 major aquifers. Few of its 31,000 public and private wells are equipped to provide real-time data. A 2011 report concluded that the most significant resource management issue Louisiana faced was a lack of timely and continuous data.

“We don’t really know how much water we’ve got,” said Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy. “We have some general ideas, thanks to folks like USGS and others. But … you don't know what that water is being used for and what it should be used for, maybe in the future. We don’t prioritize it in any significant way until it's too late.”

The IRW and WWNO/WRKF used USGS records to compile a subset of 2,000 wells that have reliable data. The analysis showed that groundwater levels across the state declined by an average of more than 10 inches a year over the last two decades. That means some wells could eventually dry up, land subsidence could increase and drinking water could be ruined by saltwater intrusion.

The USGS conducted a separate analysis of that data subset. It found that if a few heavy industrial and agricultural users were excluded, Louisiana’s groundwater use would be sustainable. But hydrologists cautioned that both of these analyses could be misleading because some wells record more data than others.

Scott Hemmerling, a director at the nonprofit Water Institute of the Gulf in Baton Rouge, said that because groundwater levels change so slowly — over decades or even centuries — management strategies must be put into place now to safeguard future water supplies.

“We won’t recognize the problem until it’s a crisis,” Hemmerling said. “Eventually we do need some type of permanent solution to protect the groundwater.”

Colten, the LSU professor, has studied water hazards in the South and in communities along Louisiana’s coast for decades. His book, “Southern Waters: The Limits to Abundance,” takes aim at the misconception that Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states have an endless supply of water.

“Water is not an infinite resource,” Colten said. “We have in the past and we continue to show that we can consume more than is available.”

Competition among agriculture, industry and public-supply water users remains the biggest threat to water security, he added.

“People want water when they need it, not when nature provides it.”

This story was produced by the Investigative Reporting Workshop and WWNO/WRKF.

We analyzed U.S. Geological Survey Groundwater Data for Louisiana to determine the extent to which water levels have declined.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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