Reservoirs: Money flows; water doesn't

May 29, 2005 By Mike Hasten mhasten@gannett.com and Jordan Blum jblum@thenewsstar.com


BATON ROUGE -- Louisiana is investing heavily in the creation of artificial lakes deemed necessary by some to solve water shortages.

Others question whether the lakes are being built more for water or commercial development and who would profit from the state's expenditures.

State lawmakers are debating legislation to create five reservoirs patterned after the 2,700-acre state-funded Poverty Point Reservoir built in Richland Parish.

If approved, Louisiana would have 14 such projects on the books. Most have received state funding over the past 10 years.

So far, only one -- Poverty Point Reservoir -- is complete. The 13 others, despite funding appropriated and spent, hold no water.

The man at the epicenter of the booming business of state-financed lake construction is state Rep. Francis Thompson. The Delhi Democrat pushed the legislation that created Poverty Point Reservoir. And he helped secure almost $40 million in state funding for the project, plus another $1 million in federal funding.

His son is on the lake commission. His brother Mike landed the lucrative job of director of Poverty Point Reservoir and other lake districts. And Terry Denman, Mike Thompson's former business partner, did the engineering and construction work on Poverty Point Reservoir. Mike Thompson and Denman also are involved in other lake districts.

Francis Thompson, as owner of a 12-acre peninsula and abutting land on Poverty Point Reservoir, also takes on the title of developer. Thompson said he paid about $10,000 per acre for the land. Lakefront lots, each less than an acre, are marketed for $27,000 to $50,000. Thompson would not specify how much his lots sold for.

The primary push for reservoir construction is in north Louisiana, where the Sparta Aquifer is low. It provides water to all or parts of 16 parishes, including Bienville, Bossier, Caddo, Claiborne, Lincoln, Natchitoches, Sabine and Webster. Wells in some areas have gone dry. And water quality in some areas is poor.

But some of the proposed lakes are to be built in areas of the state with no water crisis.

Poverty Point is not in the Sparta Aquifer area, but the need for drinking water in northeast Louisiana was a primary argument for building the reservoir.

"When we built Poverty Point, we built it for water," Francis Thompson said. "We have a pump to extract water, but we're not selling it right now. Will it ever be used for drinking water? I hope so."

Reservoir critic James Moore of Allen Parish, where a proposed lake threatened to take his property, said what he's seen at Poverty Point and heard in reservoir planning meetings indicates water is just an excuse being used to secure permits and state funding for reservoirs so some people can make money.

"They're not being built for water; they're built for money. They're taking people's homes to resell as new homes and golf courses."

Moore has documented most of his claims online at www.angelfire.com/gundam/reservoir. And he questions why so many lakes are being proposed.

"The water level in a lot of our aquifers has come down over the years, not just the Sparta," Thompson said, so reservoirs are needed to relieve some of the strain on aquifers. "It takes a long time to come down, but it takes even longer to recharge them. It's not like recharging a battery."

In 1977, Thompson gained approval of legislation calling for a study of building a reservoir in northeast Louisiana. Later, he authored legislation to create a board with powers to expropriate property and use state, local and federal funds to build a lake. State funding followed.

Thompson's legislation, which he says he borrowed from other states where reservoirs have been built, has been used as a model for similar projects and is being used this year as lawmakers seek reservoirs in Lincoln, Morehouse, Allen and Washington parishes.

Providing drinking water is a major factor in whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will issue permits for reservoir construction, Mike Thompson said.

Although parishes that develop lakes enjoy economic development, the permit application has to show a "justified" need, he told Lincoln Parish officials in a meeting during which they considered applying for a lake. "In this case, it would be water. You have a significant problem with the Sparta, which makes it easier to develop a reservoir. Economic development would be a by-product.

"I'll file all the capital outlay requests," Mike Thompson told Lincoln officials. "This is a political process as well as an economic process. And I have experience in both."

Mike Thompson also once was director of a state-funded rural development program.

"In all honesty, we're riding the coattails of the need for water," Choudrant Mayor Bill Sanderson said in an interview following that meeting. "But the biggest impact is economic development. We have to be realistic about that."

Beth Guines, regulatory branch chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, Miss., said the Corps takes a close look at projects before issuing permits. If it's a reservoir in an area without a critical water shortage, applicants must show that there's no alternative water source and that it's the least environmentally damaging location.

"We need to know the purpose of the project, whether it's for recreation or water supply. We want the details."

Guines' office looks at public interest factors, wildlife safety, the amount of land that would be taken from wildlife and people and other factors. If wetlands or streams are harmed, mitigation would be required.

Reps. Hollis Downs, R-Ruston, and Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, used the beleaguered Sparta Aquifer in their legislative arguments for constructing reservoirs in their districts. Both bills are awaiting final passage by the Senate, having already been approved by the House of Representatives and a Senate committee.

Rep. Mike Powell, R-Shreveport, asked about the cost of the project. Downs said it is "subject to a guess" but estimated $25 million. He also said it would not interfere with a proposal to pipe drinking water from Lake D'Arbonne in Union Parish and would partner with that project because "not one thing is going to solve the problem."

Powell said he's concerned about how much the state is spending on lake projects "when we have so many other needs. Where is this on our priority scale?"

The $39.7 million in new reservoir projects and more than $20 million in improvements to existing reservoirs in the capital outlay bill, the state's prioritized construction plan, have top-level funding. For most, planning, engineering and construction funds are ranked Priority 1 and 2 in a five-step plan. Priority 1 is immediate funding and Priority 2 is within six months.

A reservoir for neither Lincoln nor Jackson is in the bill.

Actual funding, though, depends on the Division of Administration and the state Bond Commission, which must approve the revenue bond-sponsored construction projects.

In their Senate Transportation Committee testimony, Downs and Fannin repeated the need for water.

"In our part of the state, our aquifer, the Sparta Aquifer, is under duress," Downs told the committee prior to it approving the bill and setting up final consideration by the Senate.

While parish officials support the projects, not everyone sees it as the best way to obtain water or a sure thing that a permit will be approved.

United States Geological Survey supervisory hydrologist Ben McGee has said he's unsure Lincoln could secure a permit for a reservoir for drinking water. "In my mind, justifying a lake in Lincoln Parish would have to come from the economic development area -- recreation, tourism and retirement -- not water.

"We already have a captured resource in Lake D'Arbonne," he said. "I think before we consider building new lakes, we should look at utilizing existing ones. With a lake, the major justification would fall on economic development."

Pumping water from Lake D'Arbonne would be much less expensive and quicker than building a lake, he said, and both would need a treatment plant to make the water fit to drink.

Fannin said a reservoir could ease a large Jackson paper mill's draw on the aquifer in his district. But officials with the Smurfit-Stone paper mill question the project.

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