(The Center Square) – The Louisiana legislative auditor is urging the Department of Natural Resources and state lawmakers to better manage the state’s surface water, citing the lack of a comprehensive plan and caps on voluntary agreements that limit revenues to fight invasive species.
A decades-long delay in developing a statewide water management plan is hampering Louisiana’s ability to regulate and value surface water, which is currently managed through a voluntary program run by the Department of Natural Resources, according to a recent audit.
“During fiscal years 2020 through 2021, DNR had 87 active cooperative endeavor agreements in place for surface water withdrawals that requested a total of 1.54 trillion gallons. For 56 (64.4%) of the CEAs, cash payment was required for water withdrawals, while 31 (35.6%) permitted the submission of economic impact reports in lieu of cash payments,” Louisiana Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack wrote to legislative leaders.
“We found that DNR needs a more robust surface water regulatory process, even if the CEAs remain voluntary. For instance, 10 percent of the CEAs active during fiscal years 2020 through 2021 contained errors in the total volume of water requested,” he wrote. “Additionally, DNR has limited staff and funds to administer the program and does not monitor compliance with all terms of the CEAs.”
State law caps fair market value for surface water at 15 cents per 1,000 gallons, preventing officials from adjusting the cost based on inflation or market demands. In fiscal years 2020 and 2021, the DNR collected $302,004 from the CEAs, money that goes to the Aquatic Plan Control Fund to fight invasive species.
The law was based on the market value used by the Sabine River Authority when the cap was implemented by lawmakers in 2014, and the DNR likely could be collecting more with the proper authority, Waguespack wrote.
“Currently, the authority charges 18 cents per 1,000 gallons for Toledo Bend water for long-term industrial contracts and $1.80 per 1,000 gallons for short-term contracts, which may include hydraulic fracturing,” he wrote. “On the Texas side of Toledo Bend, in contrast, Texas charged $4.50 per 1,000 gallons in July 2021 for hydraulic fracturing water use.”
Waguespack noted that Louisiana’s lack of a water code, as well as fragmented data on water, has prevented efforts to create a management plan, and offered several suggestions and considerations to improve the situation.
Waguespack suggested the legislature designate a person to develop a comprehensive water resource management plan, and consider adopting key pieces of an anticipated new water code. The Louisiana State Law Institute was tasked with creating proposed legislation in 2014 and has not finalized recommendations.
The LLA also suggested the legislature make the current CEAs mandatory or implement another process to regulate surface water withdrawals above a minimum amount, along with funding to make it happen.
DNR Secretary Thomas Harris responded to the LLA audit in a letter on June 20 that agreed with recommendations for his department to improve CEA monitoring and compliance, and vowed to seek finding from the legislature.
“To address this issue, DNR has added a new layer of review of CEAs specifically focused on ensuring that the figures in the CEA document to be signed/approved match the water volume approved/agreed upon by DNR in the application process,” Harris wrote.
“While DNR does not have the authority to make the surface water program mandatory for users, DNR plans to request additional funding to support a basic staff, to potentially include sufficient employees with appropriate qualifications/training to audit water use by water users under CEAs and field agent(s) with appropriate qualification/training to conduct site visits/inspections to monitor sites in the field, verify appropriate metering equipment/standards and check for compliance with CEA requirements.”