U.S. Water News Online
NEW ORLEANS -- The three-year drought is over, but it's ushered in a new reality: water fears and water politics.
In the drought's scorched wake, lush and water-riddled Louisiana faces an unlikely situation: future uncertainty over rain, aquifers, and coastal marshlands.
It's been one of the worst droughts in Louisiana history, prompting many officials to prepare for the next extended dry spell, Brad Spicer, an assistant commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said.
``We don't want knee-jerk reactions to this year, but it's a good point to start from,'' Spicer said.
``It takes an event like a drought to stimulate action,'' state climatologist Jay Grymes said.
Spicer is drafting a drought policy, akin to ones in effect in Western states. He plans to organize cross-agency meetings to deal with future droughts.
``The drought has made us aware of what our water resources are,'' Spicer said. ``That's an absolute fact.''
In 2000, statewide rainfall was 14 inches below normal, one of the lowest on record, Grymes said.
The drought hit several fronts. There were more than a half billion dollars in timber and agricultural losses. Over 50,000 acres of timberland were blackened by forest fires. And scientists believe drought contributed to stretches of coastal marshlands dying.
Next year there will be some relief, weather forecasters say, as an El Nino cycle looms. The wetter conditions that come with El Nino should replenish the reservoirs sucked dry these past three years by its cousin, La Nina.
And the drought introduced a new scenario centered on the need for water conservation, experts said.
David Bary, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said he sees a rising tide of concern in Louisiana over water use and policies, things that have historically only been a debate in the arid Western states.
``That's what I'm witnessing at the state and local levels: How can we have enough water?'' Bary said. ``Even in Louisiana, where water is bountiful.''
State Sen. James David Cain, D-Dry Creek, is spearheading an effort to pass legislation to regulate the state's aquifers.
A task force is looking at whether the state needs a policy on who can pump groundwater and how much they can take. The question was prompted by plans for at least 20 new power plants that would draw millions of gallons a day from the aquifers, many of which are sources of drinking water around the state.
Cain believes water issues dominate Louisiana politics -- much the way they do in the arid West -- as urban growth, economic development, and drought continue to deplete aquifers on which Louisiana residents rely.
``We've not had to worry about it back here in Louisiana, but it's slowly creeping over here,'' he said.
The first stage of the debate over water has centered on regulating the immense aquifers, which supply drinking water, but officials said the next stage may be to regulate surface water.
Cain fears neighboring states will take advantage of Louisiana's lack of aquifer regulation and ship vast amounts of water out of state.
Nathalie Walker of Earth Justice agreed that water is becoming a key issue in Louisiana.
``Here we've got the rest of the country waging water wars, but
it's hardly on the radar screen here,'' she said. She added: ``Lo and
behold, it looks like we're going to get involved.''
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