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Louisiana’s Rural Water Problems Persist Despite Federal Aid

The Louisiana Department of Health found that 81 percent of the state’s population were serviced with A or B grade water systems. But 115 of the state’s systems, mostly in rural areas, were ranked with a D or F.

Madison Parish, La., School Superintendent Charlie Butler Jr. estimates his students have been forced to have 10 days of virtual school this year and additional half days — not because of COVID or storm damage to buildings but because his district doesn't have adequate drinking water.

Earlier this month, Butler's small district in rural northeastern Louisiana was on another of those virtual days and had to stop LEAP testing after going on half-days earlier in the week. A downed transformer knocked out a pump and water pressure in the Tallulah system, he said, leaving school toilets inoperable for several days as pressure was slowly restored.

Boil water advisories, pressure losses and, sometimes, essentially black, sludge-laden water are part of what he has seen as a steadily worsening problem for his high-poverty district of 1,200 students over the past three years, he said.

"It's just something that really needs to be fixed," Butler said. "Water is essential to life, and it impacts our school system in every, every fashion."

Tallulah town officials are seeking millions in federal dollars through the state to refurbish the 70-year-old system that serves around 6,100 people but they have bumped up against inflationary costs that have left any repairs in limbo for now.

Their struggle is yet another example of a long-recognized problem with drinking water infrastructure in Louisiana's rural heartland, where customer bases can be small, systems can be old and finances tight. One legislator who is working on the issue said estimates put the cost of the problem in rural Louisiana at $4 billion.

In southeast Louisiana, recent problems in the town of Killian in rural eastern Livingston Parish offer another case study.

The town, which has struggled for several years with the maintenance and operation of its water system, has been under a boil water advisory since April 23 over brown, silty water.

For several days this month, the nearly 1,000 people who rely on the system lived on water brought in by trucks at a cost of $30,000 per day as officials inspected the system and Killian's only water well.

Parish and local officials had wanted an emergency declaration but state officials told them Friday that the age- and maintenance-related nature of the problems don't warrant such an order and that this kind of problem isn't uncommon in Louisiana.

"Unfortunately, there are multiple water systems around the state at any given time with similar issues as Killian that do not require this step," Jacques Thibodeaux, director of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said in a statement.

Killian contends with iron and manganese that naturally occur in its drinking water aquifer, a common problem across the state. The contaminants can leave water brown and silty but generally aren't a health risk.

Killian Not Alone

Over more than a decade, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office, the Louisiana Department of Health, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have each highlighted the problems with drinking water systems in the state.

In 2013, the engineering society gave the state's water infrastructure a "D+", indicating it was "poor and crumbling," according to state officials. In 2017, state auditors found four out of every 10 public systems in the state were undercharging customers, allowing maintenance problems to grow.

During that time, another small town had put the drinking water issue front and center. Shortly before Christmas 2016, then-Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a public health emergency in the small northeast Louisiana town of St. Joseph after state testing found high levels of lead in some homes.

Edwards ordered the town's approximately 1,000 residents not to drink, brush their teeth, bathe or cook with the water from their taps.

More extensive testing later found lead contamination in nearly 22 percent of buildings in St. Joseph at levels high enough to require government action, likely from old lead pipes.

The state ended up investing $11 million from grants and other sources to rebuild the then roughly 90-year-old water system and reopened it in March 2018. Residents went more than a year having the state truck in bottled water while the work was underway.

Responding to a 2021 state law, the Louisiana Department of Health has graded community public water systems the past two years and found they were in much better condition than the engineering society had a few years earlier, with 81 percent of the state's population served by a system rated with an "A" or a "B" in 2023.

But about 14 percent of the state's population was on one of 115 systems rated with a "D" or an "F". Most of those were in rural corners of the state. For 2022 and 2023, Killian received a "D"; Tallulah an "F".

The ratings don't necessarily mean the water is unsafe to drink but are a broad measure of the system's financial health, infrastructure quality and operations that point to a system's long-term viability.

While the need may be acute in rural Louisiana, questions persist across the state also.

Big and small communities in south Louisiana are grappling with salt water intrusion into underground aquifers and critical surface water sources like the Mississippi River — including the state's two largest metro areas: Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

On the horizon, systems may also have to step up their response and spending on a whole class of ubiquitous chemical pollutants, known as per- and polyfluorinated substances, as federal regulators zero in on them.

In April 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated Louisiana would have more than $9 billion in drinking water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years. The estimate was made with 2021 dollars during the first and sharpest year of the nation's inflationary rise in materials and labor prices.

A Dent in a Significant Problem

Since the pandemic, however, hundreds of millions in federal dollars have flowed to the state for drinking water systems, including $300 million from the American Rescue Plan.

State Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R- Houma, sits on the Water Sector Commission, a state panel established under the former governor to weigh proposed projects and dole out the federal dollars and some additional state money.

Zeringue said the state has implemented about $1 billion in work so far, but it isn't close to being enough. The total need in rural Louisiana is $4 billion, he said.

"You have people literally drinking and bathing in bad, brown water, and, unfortunately, some of these communities cannot afford to upgrade their systems and, just as challenging, even if we (could) afford to upgrade it, they can't afford to charge the rates to maintain them," he said.

Residents in St. Joseph, for example, saw a minimum 45 percent rate increase after the state rebuilt that system.

Zeringue said he believes the commission has made a dent in the problem, but legislators are seeking more money because it remains a significant problem. He said the panel is looking to see how it can help Killian.

About a week before the latest problems in Killian emerged last month, Zeringue and other members of the water commission reviewed project extensions and requests for more money. Among the projects on the docket was the town of Tallulah's. City officials were pleading for more money.

After years of work, they had pulled together about $15 million from the Water Sector program, their own COVID dollars and a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan and grant to completely refurbish their water plant and system.

But, after a second round of bids came in higher than the first, the city is now $7 million short, a spokeswoman said.

Commissioners noted the Water Sector program only had $40 million set aside for cost overruns among all approved projects and suggested the city divide the project into phases and look for other state dollars.

Yvonne Lewis, city spokesperson, said she says a prayer every day she passes the plant.

"We just don't know if we're going to be able to get that money before something catastrophic happens to our water plant and we're just without water," she said.

Zeringue said he believes a combination of additional dollars, perhaps from capital outlay, and a focus on the most critical repairs could get the work going.

Butler, the Madison superintendent, said he recently used federal COVID dollars to install water filters in the schools but said school officials are still serving students bottled water.

(c)2024 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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