Several hundred Lafayette Utilities System customers, including those with in-ground irrigation systems, could soon face an annual fee of up to $200 to test special devices designed to keep contaminants out of the city’s water supply.
The City-Parish Council — at the behest of state health officials — is scheduled next month to consider a new regulation requiring the annual testing of back-flow preventers, a plumbing device that allows water to flow in only one direction.
The devices are required when water lines are linked directly to some source of contamination, such as a chemical tank or a soap mixer at a car wash, and are designed to keep pollutants from being sucked into the water system if water pressure drops unexpectedly.
LUS officials say there are at least 2,000 back-flow preventers installed in the city that would be subject to the proposed testing requirement.
One of the most common applications is in-ground irrigation systems, where the back-flow preventers serve to keep bacteria and lawn care chemicals from being sucked into irrigation lines and then out into the city’s main water lines.
LUS already requires the installation of back-flow preventers when needed, but the new regulation being mulled by the council would add the requirement of an annual test to ensure the devices are working properly.
Under the current proposal, customers would be responsible for having the devices tested and could face escalating fines and the possible disconnection of water service.
Estimates for the annual inspection fee range from $150 to $200, LUS Waste and Wastewater Operations Manager Craig Gautreaux said.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” he said of the testing fee.
Gautreaux said that LUS officials see few options, because the state Department of Health and Hospitals is threatening fines against LUS that could rise to thousands of dollars a day if the testing requirement is not enforced.
“You are caught between a rock and hard place,” he said.
LUS brought the proposed regulation to the council earlier this month.
The council members declined to act, saying they wanted a representative from DHH to attend a meeting and explain the need for the costly new testing requirement.
“Sooner or later we are going to have to fold and do what we have to do,” Gautreaux said.
The state requires water systems to mandate annual testing of back-flow preventers, and DHH has long been urging LUS to develop a strategy to ensure that requirement is met, said Jake Causey, who oversees DHH’s Safe Drinking Water Program.
“We are just getting to the point where they need to step up to the plate or enforcement action (against LUS) will be coming,” Causey said.
He said the testing requirement aims to address a real issue for public water supplies.
There is no way of knowing how often back-flow issues arise in a public water system, but Causey could recall two major incidents in Louisiana when agricultural chemicals were sucked into public water lines after water pressure dropped while farmers were filling tanks.
He said that DHH has also been working with other water systems in the state, some of which have developed different strategies to ensure the devices are tested.
Zachary, for example, contracts with one company to test all the back-flow preventers and then tacks on the inspection charge to water bills.
The City-Parish Council is scheduled to discuss the proposed testing requirement again on Dec. 20.
LUS officials said they have requested that a DHH representative attend the meeting.
Gautreaux said that LUS officials have been meeting with DHH to see if there is any wiggle room in enforcement, including the possibility of gradual implementation of the testing.
“We think it is a big jump for our customers to go from zero inspections to all (being inspected),” he said.