A bill passed today by the Louisiana Senate Committee on Senate and Governmental Affairs would make it legal for groundwater district commissioners to be paid by companies that pull water from systems that they oversee.
The Louisiana Board of Ethics considers groundwater district commissioners getting paid by those companies a conflict-of-interest violation under current law. Still, five of the 18 members of the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission — which manages groundwater for Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas — for years received salaries from companies regulated by the commission.
The five board members received salaries from ExxonMobil, Georgia-Pacific, Entergy and the Baton Rouge Water Company, all private companies that withdraw water from the Southern Hills Aquifer. In 2020, the ethics board charged the commissioners with conflict-of-interest violations. The charges are pending before the Division of Administrative Law, said ethics administrator Kathleen Allen. Hearings on the cases could be a year out.
Senate Bill 203 by Senator Mack Bodi White, Jr. — which the committee unanimously approved Tuesday — would invalidate the charges. Sen. White said that the bill would change the law to be in line with its legislative intent to have industry representatives who have expertise and knowledge of the issues serve on groundwater commissions.
The Louisiana Board of Ethics voted 6-1 to oppose the bill, Allen said.
Gray Sexton, who represents three commissioners charged with ethics violations, testified in favor of the bill. Industrial water users are tasked with recommending three commissioners to the board, he said. The commissioners are then appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. The appointees are not vetted by the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program.
While the law does charge industrial users with recommending three members to the groundwater commission, it does not say that those representatives should be employed by the industrial users, Allen said. Kathy Wascom, with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, called the bill an “ethics carve out.”
“That’s essentially what the bill would do,” she said.
Representatives of Entergy and the Baton Rouge Water Company — which both have employees charged with ethics violations — submitted green cards in favor of the bill.
Environmental groups have warned that excessive pumping from the Southern Hills Aquifer, which the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission manages, is causing saltwater intrusion that could make the water undrinkable. The aquifer provides drinking water for Baton Rouge, Slidell, Covington and surrounding areas.
A 2019 Louisiana Legislative Auditor report found that the commission failed to effectively regulate withdrawal of water from the aquifer to prevent intrusion of saltwater. Climate change is expected to exacerbate competition for water.
Groundwater commissioners should take seriously their job to protect drinking water, said Martha Holmgren, with Together Louisiana, a network of congregations and civic organizations. “We can be sure that moving forward there are going to be many conflicts over the accessibility of water,” Holmgren said.