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Watery Louisiana faces declining water supply
By DOUG SIMPSON The Associated Press 4/7/01 5:38 PM
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Much of Louisiana is more water than earth. Houses are built on stilts over watery bayous and marshes. The best transportation is often a motorboat.
But despite all that water, Louisiana's rich supply of drinking water is gradually disappearing. Salt water is slowly seeping into the water supply in southeast Louisiana. And the rest of the state is draining its aquifers -- the sandy underground formations that hold water so pristine it barely needs processing.
"We don't know it yet, but this is one of the most serious issues facing Louisiana today," said Brad Hanson, a research associate at the Louisiana Geological Survey. "Man can create artificial food or sunlight, but there's no substitute for fresh water."
Experts say water-rich Louisiana faces this problem because the state has such a liberal attitude toward water use -- it may be the only state with no water regulations at all. Officials at the state Department of Transportation and Development polled 37 states about their water policies. The other states all had some policy to limit and regulate water use.
Louisiana has no regulations whatsoever. Farmers, power plants, refineries and other businesses can use all the water they want -- no questions asked.
"Anywhere in the state, you can just hire a licensed driller, put your well in and pump from it," said Bo Bolourchi, chief of water resources with the state Department of Transportation and Development. "It might dry up your neighbor's wells, but you're allowed to do it."
The result? The state's aquiferss, or groundwater levels, are dropping anywhere from a half-foot to eight feet per year. Water specialists say it's only a matter of time before the state will be forced into restricting water use.
"A lot of people have the perception that the ground water supply is unlimited, but that's just not the case," said Barry Kohl, a Tulane University geology professor.
Geologists describe aquifers as akin to enormous bathtubs that have been filled with sand, then filled with water. They lie hundreds of feet underground, filled with fresh, clean water that has been collecting for thousands of years.
The New Orleans area is the only part of Louisiana that uses surface water -- taken from the Mississippi River -- as its supply of drinking water. The vast majority, 95 percent, of Louisiana's drinking water is groundwater, pulled up by wells from aquifers spread all over the state.
As that abundant groundwater supply gradually disappears, industry has taken most of the blame.
Some public officials and activists have charged that the main threats to the water supply are so-called "merchant power plants," which go through thousands of gallons of water in the steam engines they use to create electricity. The plants need supplies of both clean water and natural gas, so they were built in rural areas where where a natural gas pipeline intersects with a well-stocked aquifer.
New merchant power plants are under construction in Ruston and Bogalusa.
But experts say the plants don't deserve all the blame. In many parts of the state, farmers use far more water than any sort of industry.
In southwest Louisiana, farmers are responsible for the most water taken from the Chico aquifer. The area is home to rice and crawfish farmers, who must flood their land.
Agriculture in that area accounts for 314 million gallons a day, or 57 percent of the total water taken. Industrial use in the area accounts for or 84 million gallons a day, or 15 percent of total water used.
Ernest Girouad, a Vermilion Parish rice farmer, typically uses surface water from nearby canals to flood his fields. But a drought last year forced him to use well water from the Chico aquifer, a back-up source that is more expensive to use.
But the Chico was hit hard by the drought, too. Tests told Girouad that the water pumped from the aquifer was salty -- a sign that the aquifer's fresh water levels had dropped too far.
Girouad used the water anyway, but a smaller-than-normal crop was the result of the salty aquifer water, he said.
"It's extremely important that we protect that groundwater," he said. "It's in everybody's best interest."
No matter who's using the water, water specialists say the state needs to institute some sort of water policy that would figure out which parts of the state are heading toward a water crisis. From there, they say, the state needs to restrict water use where necessary.
"We're not necessarily going to need to initiate restrictions policies for all of our aquifers," Hanson said. "But on the other side of that coin, we're going to find some regions where management is way overdue."
Gov. Mike Foster and the state Legislature have begun to recognize the need for water restrictions. Foster ordered a task force to review the state's drinking water supply. A Legislative committee voted Tuesday to delay consideration of a number of bills that would restrict water use.
Water experts say the state needs to act quickly.
"We can't wait too long," Hanson said. "We can't handle another 25 years without a water policy and some kind of regulation. We will create some short and long-term problems for ourselves if we're not cognizant of what we're doing."
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), April 08, 2001
More people = less natural resources. The Census figures just release shows that population has increased in EVERY state, including Louisiana.
-- K. (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 08, 2001.