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Known For Its Floods, Louisiana Is Running Dangerously Short Of Groundwater

Christian Richard stands next to a groundwater well on his southwestern Louisiana farm. A centuries-old law allows landowners in the state to use as much water as they want for free.
Christian Richard stands next to a groundwater well on his southwestern Louisiana farm. A centuries-old law allows landowners in the state to use as much water as they want for free.

Louisiana is known for its losing battle against rising seas and increasingly frequent floods. It can sometimes seem like the state has too much water. But the aquifers deep beneath its swampy landscape face a critical shortage.

Groundwater levels in and around Louisiana are falling faster than almost anywhere else in the country, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. An analysis 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 threaten the groundwater that nearly two-thirds of Louisianans rely on for drinking and bathing. Combined with the expected effects of climate-fueled heat and drought, it puts Louisiana on the brink of a groundwater crisis more common in Western states.

"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?" asks 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?"

Decades of overuse

Agriculture consumes more than 61% of Louisiana's groundwater. In part, that's because a centuries-old law gives landowners "ultimate dominion" over the groundwater beneath their property.

When it comes time to flood his rice fields in southwestern Louisiana, sixth-generation farmer Christian Richard just flips a switch. Within seconds, crystal clear water gurgles up a 120-foot well and shoots out a short spout, right into the field.

It's simple, easy and free.

"I think that ultimately, rice will be grown in the areas where the water is the cheapest and the most readily available," Richard says.

But the Chicot Aquifer he draws from is losing water faster than it can be replenished. It's being overdrawn by about 350 million gallons a day. And that's creating another threat: saltwater intrusion.

Overpumping reduces the downward pressure exerted by the aquifer's fresh water, giving seawater from the Gulf of Mexico room to move in and fill the void. Aquifers in other parts of the state are also dealing with saltwater intrusion, but the Chicot's proximity to the coast exacerbates the problem here, says Christine Kirchhoff, a national water resources management and policy researcher at the University of Connecticut.

"You might have a well that is functioning just fine now," Kirchhoff says, "but once salt contaminates fresh water, it's done. That's it. You no longer have that well."

Louisiana's oil and gas refineries, paper mills and other industries are other major groundwater users. Our investigation finds they draw more of it than industries in any other state except California.

Industry also has an outsized influence when it comes to regulating Louisiana's water.

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

"The way we've been doing it"

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

Louisiana has just two.

That includes one in Baton Rouge, where the state 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.

At the state level, there are two legislative committees responsible for managing water. But the IRW and WWNO/WRKF investigation found more than a third of the 25 legislators who sit on them have business ties to major groundwater users.

Democratic State Rep. Denise Marcelle has been trying to draw attention to these potential conflicts for years but was told, "'This is the way we've been doing it,'" she says. "They protect the industry and not the constituents, in my opinion."

Most of the state lawmakers did not respond to repeated requests for comment, nor did Governor John Bel Edwards.

After this story first aired in Louisiana, Republican Senate Environmental Quality Committee Chairman Eddie Lambert said he was concerned about the issue. He said he may look into the problem and supports a "comprehensive study" that examines Louisiana's groundwater supply.

"Pristine drinking water should not be used by industry or agriculture," Lambert said.

At least 12 separate reports — done at taxpayers' expense over the past 70 years — have urged the state to create a comprehensive water management plan.

Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources technically oversees water, but spokesman Patrick Courreges says it can't do much. "We feel like we're right up against the edge of our regulatory authority," he says. "We're doing the best we can with what we're empowered to do."

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. That partnership has cut down on industrial overuse of the region's precious groundwater resources.
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. That partnership has cut down on industrial overuse of the region's precious groundwater resources.

Costly local solutions

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

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.

"People can't see the aquifer," says 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."

Emory and other local officials came up with a plan. They set out to expand their sewage treatment plant so it could provide water for the mill, and save the aquifer for local residents." It cost $20 million in federal and state grants, and took years to build. But now they're turning wastewater into usable water — a crisis averted.

Mark Davis, director of Tulane's Center for Environmental Law, says small towns like West Monroe wouldn't be forced to come up with expensive solutions like this if the state actually had laws that protected the groundwater. He chairs a state committee the Legislature tasked with rewriting the state's water code more than five years ago. It has yet to make any formal recommendations.

"Raw water is becoming more coveted," he says." And unless you have some kind of restrictions on how and when it can be used, essentially, you can expect someone to take it from you."

Texas, for example, has made plays for Louisiana's water for decades.

Davis says instead of leaving it to "individuals and fate" Louisiana needs laws, as other states have, to protect groundwater. "Someone should be accountable for the job."

A wastewater treatment plant in West Monroe, La., uses microalgae to biologically purify water. It's the first step in a process that helps supply water for a local paper mill, saving the area's stressed aquifer for residents.
Austin R. Ramsey / IRW
A wastewater treatment plant in West Monroe, La., uses microalgae to biologically purify water. It's the first step in a process that helps supply water for a local paper mill, saving the area's stressed aquifer for residents.

This story was produced by theInvestigative Reporting WorkshopandWWNO/WRKF.

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