To better understand the risk saltwater intrusion poses to the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people, Baton Rouge-area regulators are trying to independently monitor how much water industrial users pump from the ground.
But the Baton Rouge Water Co. has sued to stop these meters, arguing that they are inaccurate, redundant and will incur unnecessary costs for their customers.
It’s the latest controversy for the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission, which state auditors and conservationists have long criticized for taking insufficient steps to protect the aquifer the region depends on.
Saltwater intrusion is one of the main problems the commission is supposed to tackle. When too much water is pumped out of the aquifer, salt water seeps in to replace it, gradually contaminating the drinking water supply, according to commission experts.
For years, experts, regulators and industry have argued over the urgency of this problem in the Southern Hills Aquifer.
To better control the problem, the commission is launching its own independent system of monitoring the use of water by 403 industrial and commercial users, such as chemical plants and water utilities. Currently, these industries are self-monitoring and self-reporting — and some have no meters at all, commission officials say.
This means the total amount of water pumped out of the aquifer – and the threat of saltwater intrusion – could be underestimated, commission members fear.
“Right now, I know that each of your houses has a meter, and they measure how much water each of us uses. That’s not the case with water wells,” the executive director said. of the commission, Gary Beard, to the parish council of Ascension. Last week. “Everything there is self-reported. It’s been that way for decades. When I took over, I said, ‘You know, if they measure our house, we have to measure every well that’s in the ground.
He said about a third of all the wells the commission regulates are metered.
To pay for monitoring, the commission tripled its rates on well owners, passing an increase of $45 per million gallons of water. The increase should mean about 18 cents more per month for the average residential customer.
A trial to stop him
The Baton Rouge Water Co. is asking a state court to stop the commission from installing the new meters and raising the fee.
The company says the commission circumvented the regular regulatory process by issuing an emergency rule – but the company says there is no water emergency to warrant such a rule.
He also argues that the system would waste millions of taxpayer dollars on inaccurate and redundant meters.
“The sonic metering system proposed to be installed is not suitable for accurately measuring the volumes of water produced. As a result, funds under the control of the (groundwater commission) will largely be , if not completely, wasted,” the lawsuit alleges.
Company officials say their own existing meters can provide the finely detailed data the commission needs. And they say there is no evidence that they or anyone else has provided false or inaccurate data in the past.
On Monday, Brett Furr, an attorney for Baton Rouge Water, explained that turbulent water inside the company’s meandering pipes and infrastructure will make the commission’s new meters, which will be tied outside of the well piping, “extremely inaccurate”.
“And so you’re going to spend tens of millions of dollars installing meters that will be less accurate than the information they’re already getting,” Furr said. “And that’s one of the things, if they had gone through the rule-making process and let the people who produced the water weigh in on that, I think they would have found that it wasn’t a good place to spend that money.”
Furr added that company officials are also concerned about the commission installing equipment and small structures at private well sites with limited space.
Baton Rouge Water Co. and its subsidiaries are Louisiana’s largest private drinking water utility, serving approximately 150,000 customers in East Baton Rouge Parish and parts of Ascension Parish.
Baton Rouge Water is also, by far, the largest self-contained user of the aquifer. In 2018, it accounted for nearly 40% of all reported groundwater pumping from the aquifer, far outpacing industrial users like Exxon Mobil or Entergy, state auditors found.
What would the monitors do?
On Monday, commission officials did not directly respond to the Baton Rouge Water lawsuit but issued a statement announcing the start of the program.
The statement said the measurement and monitoring program will allow the commission “to acquire unmanipulated data demonstrating the daily use of each” layer of the aquifer and to determine the amount of salt in those layers.
This data will enable the commission “to protect the aquifer as required by the legislature, to take all necessary steps to prevent salt water intrusion into the aquifer, and to control the pumping rates of users such as the ‘industry and private enterprise,” Beard added in the statement.
The meters would mean a quantum leap in information, officials say: hourly totals reported daily versus monthly data reported quarterly.
LSU researcher Frank Tsai said the level of data would enable the creation of better computer models that can be used to decide on long-term planning, better assess new well demands and understand the value of costly measures to protect. the aquifer.