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Groundwater Threats Compounded By A Changing Climate

Tegan Wendland
The remains of a water tower in Holly Beach, Louisiana, that was destroyed by Hurricane Laura in 2020.

SIBLEY, La. — Louisiana is ground zero for climate change. Its coast is disappearing at a rate of a football field every hour and a half and hurricanes are growing more fierce, forcing residents to move north to higher ground. Rainfall is also increasing, creating floods so severe that, in 2017, some reporters covered New Orleans by canoe.

But while climate change has brought an abundance of water from above, it also threatens valuable water below — the groundwater in Louisiana’s aquifers that the majority of the population relies on for drinking water.

In some parts of the state, officials are already envisioning a future where underground water runs dry.

In the tiny northern town of Sibley, population 1,218, Mayor Jimmy Williams is doing what he can to ensure his constituents will always have water to bathe, drink and do their laundry.

Officials in neighboring Bossier and Webster parishes proposed diverting 12 million gallons a day from a bayou that feeds Lake Bistineau in order to support growing demands on the outskirts of nearby Shreveport.

But Williams, whose town lies on the northernmost bank of the lake, blocked the project, saying his community’s residents might need that surface water someday.

“I really didn't want to give our water away,” he said. “That’s actually what we'd be doing.”

Williams witnessed a 2010 drought that caused groundwater levels to drop and strained the cluster of aquifers that supply the city’s four wells. Salt water moved into surrounding community water wells, and he watched officials scramble to buy groundwater from neighboring parishes.

Williams said he also noticed that a growing number of industrial users, mostly paper mills, were moving into the area. And the populations of nearby Monroe and Bossier City were growing as people moved in to take advantage of the new jobs.

Everything pointed to a growing demand for water.

Louisiana’s groundwater is exhaustible, he said, and one day it is going to be exhausted.

“When they turn on the water and there’s nothing there, then they're going to be concerned,” the mayor said. “They're going to be mad at the government. So we need to solve this problem now instead of waiting until it is too late.”

Williams’ solution is to preserve the bayou for his town’s future water needs well before the aquifers run dry.

But Gina Brown, a state performance auditor who has studied the state’s water management issues, said a better solution is for the state to budget its water like a bank account.

“We have an abundance of water, but we have no idea how much we need in the future,” she said. “Areas of the state, as we know, have either potentially been overpumped or, just due to natural circumstances, their wells run dry faster. They could run out of water, and then we eventually have to figure out how we get water to these areas.”

[Weanalyzed U.S. Geological Survey Groundwater Data for Louisiana to determine the extent to which water levels have declined.]

Credit Austin R. Ramsey / IRW
The U.S. Geological Survey uses observation wells to monitor groundwater levels in real-time, but across the state only a few hundred are able to produce data without manual measurements.


Premium Water

One obvious solution is for groundwater users to switch to surface water from the state’s many lakes, rivers and bayous.

Except in times of drought, surface water is abundant in northern Louisiana, but it comes with a catch. The cost of treating that water for contaminants and bacteria, which the groundwater recharge process naturally filters out, can be extremely high — in some cases, 200% or 300% more than the cost of pumping groundwater.

If Bossier and Webster parishes had been able to get water from Lake Bistineau, they would have had to revamp an abandoned water treatment plant at a former U.S. Army ammunition depot to process it — at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

The cost of shifting a region from groundwater to surface water will fall on ratepayers, Williams said.

“Water in Louisiana is going to be the same as it is in California right now,” he said. “It’s going to be a premium.”

Failing Infrastructure

The northernmost parts of the state are not the only areas that could run out of water.

As the planet continues to warm and destructive storms become more routine, they’re likely to expose widespread disrepair in the Gulf region’s drinking water infrastructure. The state is not prepared for these threats. Louisiana’s drinking water infrastructure earned a failing grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2017.

After Hurricane Laura forced coastal residents in western Louisiana to evacuate, some returned to find their water systems upended.

The water tower in the tiny unincorporated town of Holly Beach — known as the “Cajun Riviera” — was toppled by the hurricane. Spencer and Carole Owens went for weeks without water.

“Showering with a bottle of water is not easy,” Spencer Owens said, laughing.

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
Spencer and Carol Owens, of Holly Beach, Louisiana, stand before their home after Hurricane Laura damaged the roof and wiped out the unincorporated town's water supply.

Just 7 feet above sea level, Holly Beach’s population decreases after every storm.

Cameron Parish Waterworks District 10, which serves Holly Beach, extracts groundwater from more than 20 miles to the north, and pumps it across an 80-mile distribution network down to the coast.

The entire system is maintained by two people who, among other things, clean up after storms to ensure tap water continues to flow. Rhonda Morrison, a District 10 administrator, said that’s becoming a way of life on the coast.

After Hurricane Ike in 2008, the district invested in new, elevated chlorine storage and control panels, which likely prevented even more damage from 2020’s Hurricane Laura. Other parts of the state weren’t so lucky.

More than 80 public and private water systems were temporarily shut off, and 33 remained off line nearly a month, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

But experts, including Robert Twilley, say it doesn’t have to be this way.

Twilley is executive director of the Sea Grant College Program based at Louisiana State University. The state, he said, could position itself to lead the nation in infrastructure investment because it’s facing the effects of climate change firsthand.

That said, he isn’t optimistic.

Twenty years ago, he co-authored a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America sounding the alarm about climate threats in Louisiana. But the problem still isn’t being addressed.

“We don’t think into the future well enough to protect our natural resources,” he said. “We end up spending so much more [in] tax dollars. We’re talking about tax revenues we’re going to put on the next generation to cover for the bad decisions that we make now for our resources, and we just do this over and over and over again.”

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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