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Baton Rouge Summit Will Address Pending Groundwater Crisis

Austin R. Ramsey/IRW/WWNO
The bank of the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge is dotted with petrochemical plants, oil refineries and paper mills. The concentration of industries in this area have earned an infamous moniker — “cancer alley” — but they are also using a disproportionate share of what could be a dwindling supply of fresh groundwater, experts say.

Advocates in Baton Rouge are continuing to lobby for protection of the region’s source of drinking water: the Southern Hills Aquifer.

Together Baton Rouge and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) are holding a community forum on the issue at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge Thursday night.

The region has been overdrawing the aquifer for decades, causing it to be threatened by saltwater intrusion. If that happens the water source will be ruined.

The problem has been the focus of several investigations by the Legislative Auditor’s office — and advocates have been fighting for solutions. They want big industrial users to draw from the Mississippi River, instead of using fresh aquifer water, but that would be costly for corporations like Exxon, Entergy and Georgia Pacific.

“The long-term goal is that industry moves to using all river water,” said LEAN director Marylee Orr.

She said organizers invited various industry representatives to participate in the event but none have agreed to attend.

The Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission (CAGWCC) oversees the aquifer, but has come under fire for not doing enough to monitor wells or limit withdrawals, among other issues.

It is also facing state ethics charges for having industry representatives on its board of directors, an issue spotlighted in the latest legislative session when lawmakers sought to make the charges moot by writing it into state law that industry representatives did not pose a conflict of interest. Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed that bill and the charges stand.

Gary Beard took over as director of the CAGWCC in 2020 and has been working to address concerns. The latest status report from the auditor’s office says the commission is making progress on several issues, including pumping and lack of monitoring.

The commission is also working with The Water Institute of the Gulf to develop long-term solutions to saltwater encroachment and protect drinking water. Beard said that study is 25% complete. It includes creating a 3D model of the aquifer, improving data sources and collection, and looking into alternative sources of water for the industry to draw from.

Beard said the commission is also investigating using wastewater for industrial purposes. He hopes that the event will “give the public confidence, knowing that we’re looking into all of these solutions.”

Organizers with Together Baton Rouge and LEAN said they hope to bring scientists and stakeholders together to answer questions citizens may have about the long-term health of the aquifer. The groups met with Gov. Edwards Wednesday in a virtual forum that was not open to journalists and sought his support, which he conveyed, according to participants.

Speakers will include representatives from the Baton Rouge Water Company, the Louisiana Water Resources Water Research Institute, the Water Institute of the Gulf, the state Department of Natural Resources, and CAGWCC director Gary Beard.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.

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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