Conservation office wants BR aquifer declared ‘unsustainable’

State Office of Conservation Commissioner James Welsh has formally requested that the Capital Area Groundwater Conservation Commission recognize that the aquifer serving the Baton Rouge area is in an unsustainable condition and that the commission’s board discuss possible solutions at its next meeting March 19.

That’s a change from what Welsh and other Office of Conservation officials have said in previous public meetings, where any solution was tied to the completion of studies the commission is doing through the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS is developing computer models for the commission that would allow officials to see what impacts potential changes in water use would have on saltwater intrusion into several layers of the Southern Hills Aquifer.

That modeling and report was initially going to be ready by late September, but report has been pushed back until at least March, said Matthew Reonas, education and marketing representative with the state Department of Natural Resources, which covers the Office of Conservation.

However, Reonas and Welsh said there is enough information available to start talking about how to address the problem. In addition, the letter was meant to state the Office of Conservation’s belief that use of certain layers of the aquifer are not sustainable and to see if the Capital Area Groundwater Conservation Commission agrees.

“For us, it would help in terms of putting everyone on the same page,” Reonas said. “We feel pretty good about the science.”

According to the Jan. 14 letter, “the 1,500 and 2,000 foot sands of the Southern Hills aquifer system located in the Baton Rouge area are not being used in a manner that can continue indefinitely without causing unacceptable environmental, economic, social or health consequences.”

Anthony Duplechin, director of the conservation commission, said the letter came as a surprise since the Office of Conservation had asked to have the agenda items added and the answer had been yes.

“They didn’t have to send the letter,” said Duplechin. “I think they’re feeling pressure.”

Although the commission agrees there is a problem with saltwater intrusion into certain layers of the aquifer, the question of whether the current use of those aquifer layers is sustainable is something the commission has to address, Duplechin said.

“We’re proceeding along to attack the problem, but we have to wait until we get the information from USGS,” Duplechin said. “We have to know exactly what the options are before we can put pen to paper.”

Salt water intrusion into layers of an aquifer that serves the Baton Rouge area’s residential and industrial needs has been recognized since the mid 1970s. As water is drawn from wells north of the Baton Rouge fault it draws saltwater from south of the fault closer to those wells. The salt comes from the salt domes located south of the Baton Rouge fault.

Concern about this salt water intrusion prompted the state Legislature to create the Capital Area Groundwater Conservation Commission in 1974 to be the “front line manager” of this aquifer, according to Welsh’s letter.

“They have a legislative mandate and they are the frontline manager of this situation,” Reonas said. “What we want to do now is just get that conversation moving.”

The district covered by the commission includes East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, West Feliciana, East Feliciana and Pointe Coupee parishes.

Duplechin said the Office of Conservation has a member on the Capital Area Groundwater Conservation Commission’s 15-member board, which is moving forward with the USGS computer modeling and has plans to expand that modeling.

In addition, industrial users of groundwater are continue to work on reducing their use and the Baton Rouge Water Co. is working on ways to draw off saltwater before it reaches pumping stations, Duplechin said.

“This has taken decades to unfold and we’re not going to get it back in the bag next year,” Duplechin said.