Louisiana Is Running Dangerously Short Of Groundwater After decades of overuse and lax regulation, Louisiana is losing groundwater faster than almost anywhere else in the country. Experts warn of a crisis more common in the drought-stricken West.

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

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Louisiana has a problem with too much water. The Mississippi flows through the middle of it, and parts of the coastline are sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. Yet Louisiana also has a problem with not enough water. Its supply of groundwater is shrinking. And that's happening faster than almost anywhere in the nation. Tegan Wendland has an investigation by WWNO and the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Rice is a huge industry in Louisiana. And it takes a lot of water to grow it. Sixth-generation rice farmer Christian Richard slides on his rubber boots and stomps out to one of his vast fields on a sunny, cool day to show us how he floods them. He flips a switch.

CHRISTIAN RICHARD: So this is a deep-water well.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

WENDLAND: That is some really beautiful, crystal-clear water. And how much do you pay for this water?

RICHARD: I do not pay for the water.

WENDLAND: In just one minute, 1,200 gallons of this crystal-clear water flows from a pipe set deep down in the Chicot Aquifer. And it's free because of a centuries-old law called ultimate dominion that lets him use as much as he wants.

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

WENDLAND: But the Chicot Aquifer is losing water faster than it can be replenished. It's being overdrawn by about 350 million gallons a day. All of that pumping is causing a deep underground depression that threatens to inundate the whole aquifer with saltwater, which would ruin it.

CRAIG COLTEN: We have built our water consumption based on the notion we won't have any real disruptions to supplies.

WENDLAND: Louisiana State University professor Craig Colten says this is part of a much larger problem. All over the state, groundwater levels are plummeting. The reasons are sweeping, decades of overuse from both agriculture and industry, lack of oversight and legislative committees rife with conflicts of interest. Plus, there's the threat of climate change bringing higher temperatures and more severe droughts. Colten says, without better management, that could spell the kind of crisis that's more common in the dry west.

COLTEN: Will restaurants no longer, you know, put a giant glass of water on your table when you're going to have your seafood platter? Will there be limits on how frequently you can wash your car in your driveway or water your lawn?

WENDLAND: Our analysis finds that industries like oil refineries, plastic and paper factories use more groundwater per person, per day in Louisiana than in any other U.S. state or territory. Generous tax incentives make the state a good place for business and so does access to free, clean water.

COLTEN: It's not an infinite resource. We continue to show that we can consume more than is available.

WENDLAND: It's hard to regulate if you don't even know how much you have. And due to decades of neglect, officials here have no idea. Meantime, industry has an outsized influence. There are two legislative committees responsible for managing Louisiana's water. But more than a third of the 25 legislators who sit on them have business ties to major groundwater users. State Representative Denise Marcelle of Baton Rouge says that's a conflict of interest.

DENISE MARCELLE: They protect the industry and not the constituents, in my opinion.

WENDLAND: None of those lawmakers responded to repeated requests for comment, nor did Governor John Bel Edwards. 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. The Department of Natural Resources technically oversees water. But spokesman Patrick Courreges says it doesn't have much actual authority.

PATRICK COURREGES: We feel like we're right up against the edge of our regulatory authority in what we do. We're doing the best we can with what we're empowered to do.

WENDLAND: Louisiana's urban populations are growing and so is agriculture and industry. That's creating conflict over water, but also some creative local solutions. In the northern part of the state, West Monroe, population 12,600, is a paper mill town. That became a problem in the 1990s when the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, a giant underground reservoir that also provides water for parts of Texas, started running dry partly because the paper mill was using too much. Terry Emory is environmental quality manager at the West Monroe Wastewater Treatment Plant.

TERRY EMORY: You can't convince people in Louisiana that they're going to run out of water because everywhere they look, they see water.

WENDLAND: So they had to come up with a solution. They decided to save the aquifer for local residents and clean up the sewage water for the paper mill. Emory takes us up a catwalk. And we look down on giant vats of water discolored by algae.

Wow. This is really something. I can't believe that you make this green water, basically, drinkable.

EMORY: Yeah (laughter). It is kind of hard to believe.

WENDLAND: It took years and $20 million in federal and state grants to build the wastewater recycling plant. And it worked. Water levels started to bounce back up. And the biggest employer in town stayed put. But 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.

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

WENDLAND: Texas, for example, has made plays for Louisiana's water for decades. Davis says Louisiana needs laws like other states have to protect its groundwater. Otherwise, the future is in the hands of...

DAVIS: Individuals and fate. Whether you do the best job or the worst job, someone should be accountable for the job.

WENDLAND: As it stands, it's nobody's job to protect Louisiana's valuable drinking water.

For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans.

INSKEEP: Austin Ramsey of the Investigative Reporting Workshop contributed to that story.

(SOUNDBITE OF HALIFAX PIER SONG, "STRANGE NEWS FROM ANOTHER STAR")

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