There is an old blues song that goes, “You don’t miss your water ‘til the well runs dry.” Soul singer and Shreveport native Rueben Bell recorded a version, as did Otis Redding and others. The songwriter was relating a love lost to how we often take water for granted despite its importance to life. We in Louisiana are accused of taking water for granted since we are surrounded by rivers, lakes and bayous and we usually enjoy generous amounts of rainfall each year.
That may be changing. Whether you believe in global warming or not, our region is in a drought carried over from the scorching summer of 2011. Last year Northwest Louisiana saw more than 60 days when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees, and rainfall was at or near historic lows.
Recent rains have lessened but not eliminated drought concerns. The “U.S. Drought Monitor” website, a production of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says Northeast Texas and Northwest Louisiana remain in “extreme drought” condition. That is defined as four on a scale of five with five being the worst. The site says the outlook is for these conditions to continue through April and possibly longer.
Drought and heat this past summer combined to force 29 water systems in Northwest Louisiana to issue conservation requests. Surface-water systems in the area all saw a drastic water-level drop in lakes and rivers, forcing them to lower their intake lines.
It appears that water will increasingly become a subject of public concern in our state. Where will we get water for drinking, for business and agriculture, for wildlife and for recreation? Demand for water is increasing, good sources are growing scarcer and more expensive to find, and costs are rising. The headline-grabbing issues last summer centered on south Shreveport and Toledo Bend. In August the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, the state agency that tracks water use and development, declared a “water emergency” in the Keithville and Ellerbe Road areas of south Caddo Parish because of the drought and over-consumption.
The DNR order, still in effect, prescribed specific conservation measures to reduce stress on groundwater aquifers that supply water for those areas.
Toledo Bend Lake, separating Louisiana from Texas, has been at record low levels due to a severe lack of rain in its watershed of Northeast Texas. At the same time the Sabine River Authority of Louisiana, which jointly manages Toledo Bend Lake with its Texas counterpart, generated headlines by proposing, and then suspending, a 99-year deal to sell water to a Texas company.
Water is a professional concern of mine because of the hundreds of privately owned water systems regulated by the Public Service Commission. They range in size from tiny Springhill Community Water in Bienville Parish, with less than 100 customers, to Baton Rouge Water Co., with more than 100,000 connections. (How a large community system like Baton Rouge Water can be owned by private interests is another story.) For all these systems the LPSC sets rates and terms of service.The largest public water systems in Northwest Louisiana are run by city governments in Shreveport and Bossier City. Shreveport gets its drinking water from Cross Lake, while Bossier City taps the Red River. These are municipal or publicly owned systems, so their rates are set by their city councils and mayors and not the LPSC.
The state Department of Health and Hospitals counts more than 1,400 public drinking-water systems in Louisiana. DHH says roughly 1,300 of these systems tap into ground water and 95 use surface water. DHH, through its Office of Public Health, regulates the quality of drinking water in Louisiana. OPH says the vast majority of water systems comply with Public Health standards. When systems are out of compliance the main problem in North Louisiana is color. “Brown” water is generally the complaint, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers color a “secondary” contaminant and it is not regulated. A more serious issue emerges when chlorine, a drinking-water disinfectant, reacts with color. This can cause contaminants in water to produce byproducts — cancer-causing carcinogens — which are regulated. Roughly 25 water systems in the state are violating disinfection byproduct standards.
Another common problem in Louisiana is arsenic. In 2006 EPA lowered the acceptable standard for arsenic in drinking water, making the standard tougher to meet. Currently, nine Louisiana water systems exceed the arsenic standard. Water issues have gotten the attention of state legislators. Because of contamination, over-use, concerns about hydraulic fracturing and efforts to sell Toledo Bend Lake water, the Legislature is expected to consider a water-management plan this year.
The good news is that we as consumers can do something about water: we can fix leaks. It’s not the little leak that wastes water; it is the little leak that keeps on leaking.
Last summer’s persistent drought was a test for our state. Louisiana has arrived at a time when we can no longer take water for granted. This resource is invaluable and we have to be more careful how we use it.