Reporters Austin R. Ramsey and Tegan Wendland traveled across the state interviewing scientists, farmers, industry leaders and politicians and examining more than 100 reports to explain how overuse of the state’s valuable resource — compounded by the effects of climate change — puts Louisiana on the brink of a groundwater crisis. Some experts say that if the state doesn’t address this issue, Louisiana could face mass water shortages Western states have long grappled with.
This is Part 2 of a five-part series.
Part 1 gives readers and listeners an overview of why the state’s lack of a water-management plan has led to concerns.
Part 3 examines The Southern Hills aquifer, which is being depleted faster than it is being replenished.
Part 4 explores the role climate change is playing in Louisiana’s shrinking groundwater supply.
Part 5 reveals why legislation to mandate water management continues to die in committee: Many members have direct financial ties to groundwater users.
Listen to the story:
CROWLEY, La. — When it comes time to flood his rice fields in southwestern Louisiana, 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.
Other than the cost to dig the well and the price he pays to run the pump, the water itself is like the air above it — free. He can use as much of it as he wants.
But he doesn’t like to talk about that.
“I just don’t like the message there because it’s going to make somebody say, ‘Well, maybe we should make them pay for the water,’” Richard said. “I mean, I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than what it is, you know? Because you’re almost inviting somebody to stake claim to this water.”
A centuries-old law gives Louisiana landowners “ultimate dominion” over the groundwater beneath their property. That means farmers, manufacturers and homeowners can take as much as they want, when they want it — no fees required.
But this hands-off approach to groundwater management is creating big problems in southwestern Louisiana, where the state’s largest and most important aquifer is losing water fast. More than 661 million gallons of water are being pumped every day from the Chicot Aquifer System, while only about 313 million gallons are being returned through rain or natural drainage.
The aquifer is being overdrawn by 348 million gallons each day — well beyond a sustainable measure.
Aquifers under threat
Four of the largest aquifers in Louisiana are losing water levels or facing the possibility of saltwater intrusion. The water table in each of these underground water storage reservoirs has been impacted by overpumping by industries and agriculture. Overpumping occurs when water that seeps underground from rain or floods — in a so-called recharge area — is lower than the amount of water being drawn out of the aquifer for human use.
“There has to be a real crisis in order for people to stand up and take notice,” said Tim Duex, a professor of hydrology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “If we continue with the current trends then, at some point in the not-too-distant future, there will be a drastic change and we’ll have to switch to some alternative water source.”
But there is no alternative water source in this part of the state.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies the Chicot system as a “sole-source aquifer,” meaning there’s no other source of water for people who live between Lake Charles and Lafayette. The region accounts for most of the state’s $1.8 billion rice industry.
Overpumping has also created another threat to the Chicot: saltwater intrusion.
Overpumping reduces the downward pressure exerted by the aquifer’s fresh water and gives 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, said 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 said, “but once salt contaminates fresh water, it’s done. That’s it. You no longer have that well.”
The three primary water users in the region — agriculture, industries and public suppliers — draw almost exclusively from the Chicot. Overpumping has contributed to the formation of an elongated cone of depression in the heart of Louisiana rice country, the third highest producing region in the nation.
U.S. Geological Survey models depict the cone’s center west of Lafayette. More than 9,000 square miles of groundwater in that area are already flowing toward the center of the cone, and deep groundwater wells have been inundated by salt water.
No Regulatory Oversight
Louisiana has only two regional oversight agencies to safeguard its aquifers — one for the Southern Hills Aquifer System near Baton Rouge, the other for the Sparta Aquifer in northern Louisiana.
In 2003, the state Legislature gave the Water Resources Commission authority to create five regional agencies, and hydrology professor Duex began lobbying to create one for the Chicot. He helped assemble a group of stakeholders who held meetings and created bylaws.
But today the Chicot, Louisiana’s most heavily used aquifer, still has no regulatory oversight.
In 2019, Duex made the hour-long drive to Baton Rouge to petition the Water Resources Commission in person.
“I realize the wheels of progress turn slowly,” he said, “but … I’d like to see something established before I retire or I die.”
Rice Industry Tries to Cut Back
Almost directly above the Chicot’s cone of depression sits the sleepy town of Crowley, population 12,500, which calls itself “the rice capital of America.” It’s in Acadia Parish, home to more rice per-acre than any other parish in the state. Louisiana has “parishes” rather than counties.
A short drive outside of town, amid Cajun prairieland teeming with rice fields, is the Louisiana State University AgCenter H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station, where agronomists work with farmers to breed water-efficient rice.
Contrary to popular belief, most varieties of rice don’t need to be submerged. Farmers flood their fields primarily to kill diseases and weeds. Because rice is a semi-aquatic plant, it can survive the flooding.
In 2002, in an effort to combat a disease called red rice, scientists at the research station bred a mutated variety of rice resistant to the herbicide imazethapyr. It’s called “Clearfield Rice” and has reduced water usage by about 30%.
“The rice industry is constantly striving to use less water,” said Adam Famoso, a research station professor of rice breeding and genetics. “It’s a sustainability and environmental issue; we want to make sure the aquifers are not depleted.”
Saving water also saves money, he said. Laser-graded fields drain more efficiently. Pumping water into fields with slotted polymer pipes ensures a more even flood.
But these practices haven’t slowed the Chicot’s drawdown. Over the past 100 years, the aquifer’s groundwater levels have declined by as much as 50 feet in some high rice-producing areas, USGS data shows. Levels tend to recover somewhat when farmers aren’t irrigating their fields and can fluctuate by as much as 20 feet.
One solution is for farmers to stop drawing from the depleted aquifer and use surface water instead.
Richard, the rice farmer, pumps about half of his water from the Chicot. He gets the rest from a water catchment area he built. It can hold upward of 4.5 million gallons that he can use over and over.
Richard said his surface water pumps are more efficient and less costly to run because the water is closer to the field, not a hundred feet underground. His average groundwater well pumps 1,200 gallons a minute, he said. His surface water pumps move water 300% faster.
In a business that depends on the movement and control of water, that can mean a world of difference.
“Water is the most precious resource we have,” he said. “We can’t stop every gallon of water, but the more that we can stop and reuse the better off we’re going to be and the less we’re going to draw down on the aquifer.”
But most farmers above the Chicot Aquifer System don’t have access to surface water, let alone a water recovery system. In fact, most people in this part of the state don’t have access to surface water at all.
Hydrology professor Duex said that if the aquifer is drained or contaminated with salt water, desalination may be the only way to access water for drinking or irrigating fields.
But desalination plants in the Western U.S. have proved costly. One estimate put the cost of desalinated water at more than twice as much as conventional means of freshwater delivery.
“It’s a lot more expensive,” Duex said. “But if you need water and people are willing to pay for it, then there’s plenty of salt water in the ocean.”
We analyzed U.S. Geological Survey Groundwater Data for Louisiana to determine the extent to which water levels have declined.