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Industry Overuse Puts Capital City Drinking Water At Risk

Austin R. Ramsey
The bank of the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge is dotted with petrochemical plants, oil refineries and paper mills.

BATON ROUGE, La. — Hays Town Jr. is an unlikely hero in the fight to save groundwater beneath Baton Rouge.

Until about 10 years ago, the 86-year-old retired contractor was like most of his neighbors in the city’s leafy Southdowns neighborhood near Louisiana State University; he simply didn’t put much thought into the water flowing from his taps.

But then he went back to school and learned about hydrology and the movement of water underground. He got a master’s degree in climatology and wrote his thesis on the city’s freshwater supply.

“I became very concerned that the aquifer was in danger from saltwater intrusion,” said Town, who now leads Baton Rouge Citizens to Save Our Water Inc., a nonprofit fighting for more oversight of the water system.

The problem lies in the Southern Hills Aquifer System, an interconnected cluster of saturated sands deep beneath Baton Rouge. The aquifer provides water to 650,000 people in six parishes. It also supplies hundreds of oil and gas plants, chemical manufacturers and commercial support contractors along the Mississippi River.

The aquifer’s water is clean and pure. Baton Rouge residents brag about its taste. And industries prefer it because it’s cheaper to access than river water, which needs expensive treatment.

But the aquifer is being depleted faster than it is being replenished, just as it is in at least four of Louisiana’s 11 major aquifers.

Every day, Louisiana industries withdraw an average of more than 56 gallons of groundwater per person — more than anywhere else in the country. Oil and gas refineries, paper mills and other industries use more groundwater than industries in any other state, except California.

The Southern Hills Aquifer is at special risk.

An analysis of groundwater data by the Investigative Reporting Workshop and WWNO/WRKF shows it’s losing water faster than any other aquifer in the state — more than 50 feet in the last 50 years.

The aquifer is separated from salt water by a fault line that runs beneath Baton Rouge. When water is pumped out of the aquifer, it sucks salt water closer. If too much salt water gets in, the aquifer would be ruined. The city would have to turn to river water or desalination for its drinking water supply — both expensive options.

Salt water has already moved into public and private water wells near the city. If the aquifer continues to lose water at the current rate, salt water could contaminate the city’s entire freshwater supply in 50 to 100 years, according to state and U.S. Geological Survey research.

“Salt water encroachment is what’s killing us,” Town said.

Eight industrial users in Baton Rouge are responsible for more than a quarter of groundwater use in the entire six-parish region.

Pumpage rates analyzed by the IRW and WWNO/WRKF show that a Koch Industries-owned paper mill north of the city, six ExxonMobil Chemical plants on the eastern and western banks of the Mississippi River and a massive ExxonMobil oil refinery near downtown Baton Rouge used nearly 15.5 billion gallons of groundwater in 2019. That’s 28% of the 55 billion gallons of water all parishes withdrew.

Only the Baton Rouge Water Co., a private utility that supplies drinking water to more than half a million people in East Baton Rouge Parish, withdrew more water from the aquifer that year.

A New Leader Acknowledges Problems

When Gary Beard took the helm of the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission in September 2020, he didn’t exactly know what he had signed up for.

“No, I don't think I knew at the time the extent of how deep the water was, so to speak,” he said.

Beard faced public criticism and a board beleaguered by charges of ethical violations.

The state Legislature established the commission in 1974. It’s the only regulatory body in Louisiana that can hold groundwater users accountable.

The commission has 18 members who represent industry, public water suppliers, state agencies and other stakeholders. They have authority to permit wells, levy annual fees on users and limit the amount of water that can be taken from the aquifer each day.

But the commission has been generous to heavy groundwater users.

Credit Austin R. Ramsey / IRW
Scavenger wells in Baton Rouge are intended to pump out saltwater from intruding into underground freshwater supplies, but experts agree they are only a temporary fix to what could be a serious, long-term problem in the city.

An IRW analysis found that the daily limits the commission set in 2013 were lower than what users were withdrawing between 1988 and 2018.

In 2019, the Legislature called on the state’s Office of Conservation to review the commission’s work. That report said damage to the aquifer was “unacceptable” and recommended “substantive improvements” to the commission’s planning and operations.

That same year, the Legislative Auditor’s Office cited the commission for failing to keep a complete well inventory and for not monitoring pumping from all the wells it did have in its database. It found the commission hadn’t issued permits for nearly a quarter of the new wells constructed in the region since 1997.

“Essentially, the capital area has not effectively regulated groundwater usage from this aquifer,” said Gina Brown, a state performance audit manager who helped write that report. “The Southern Hills aquifer needs to be regulated, so it can continue to provide drinking water for the citizens for years to come.”

The audit also noted that several commission members were employed by companies the commission regulates, a violation of a Louisiana law that prohibits public servants from receiving anything of economic value from regulated people or entities.

In 2020, the Louisiana Board of Ethics charged five commissioners employed by the Baton Rouge Water Co., Entergy Corp., Georgia-Pacific and ExxonMobil with violating that law.

Beard, a wastewater reclamation engineer and former state legislator, said he can’t comment on ongoing litigation but said he’s working to right the ship.

“I'm not real sure how we got where we are today, but I know how we can get out, and that's what I'm trying to focus on,” he said.

After Beard took the post last year, he reached out to the Auditor’s office to begin determining how to address the concerns in its reports.

“There's no doubt that we are certainly depleting our groundwater resources,” Beard said. “Here in Louisiana, we have, for the longest time, had an abundance of groundwater, and we never had to look at other alternatives. I think the time has come where other alternatives need to be analyzed.”

The commission is working with The Water Institute of the Gulf on a study to assess groundwater needs, supply and potential actions, including alternative water sources — which could include the Mississippi River or reusing wastewater.

Beard said he had requested $1.8 million from the Legislature to pay for the first phase of the study. He plans to go back and ask for an additional $10 million to implement a new metering program and a database of existing wells. If the Legislature doesn’t approve the funds, Beard said the board might consider raising rates to cover the costs.

He said representatives from big industries are “on board” with the plan.

“I look forward to working with them over the next couple of years as the study is completed,” he said.

‘Pro-business and pro-fresh water’

Environmental groups as well as public and private domestic water suppliers have lobbied the commission to take a tougher approach with industries in and around Baton Rouge.

“We simply believe it’s best to reserve that water for the people,” said Adrienne Mire, vice president of administration for the Baton Rouge Water Co. “The aquifer is the best option to do so. If too much gets taken out and it’s depleted, then it no longer is that abundant resource we’ve grown to rely on.”

Credit Austin R. Ramsey / IRW
Hays Town Jr., 86, says the water flowing from the Southern Hills Aquifer System in southeast Louisiana is among the purest in the world, for now.

Town, the Baton Rouge activist, said industries should be required to end their reliance on the aquifer and use river water instead.

Conservation isn’t a political issue in Baton Rouge anymore, Town said. It’s a way of life.

“I’m very pro-business, but I’m also very pro-fresh water,” he said. “And I don’t want to see my grandchildren drinking river water when they should have fresh water. … God gave us fresh water and we ought to maintain it as best we can.”

Industries that have grown and flourished on the banks of the Mississippi River aren’t likely to give up their inexpensive groundwater that easily.

The cost of treating river water to make their products, cool heavy machinery or generate electricity might outweigh one of the perks that led them to Louisiana in the first place.

ExxonMobil officials said in a statement that the company already sources about half of its water from the river. Using more than that, the statement said, would affect plant efficiency.

Georgia-Pacific officials said they weren’t exploring alternative sources of water. But they expect their groundwater consumption to drop by roughly 70% because the company’s Port Hudson mill, the region’s largest industrial user, is shutting down its papers and pulping operations as a result of lower market demand.

The Baton Rouge Water Co. isn’t counting on the region’s industries to preserve the aquifer for its half a million customers. The utility has already bought land near the Mississippi River, preparing for the possibility it might one day be the region’s only reliable source of drinking water.

This story has been updated to clarify Georgia-Pacific's plans.

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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