The residents of St. Joseph will be drinking water delivered by trucks for at least eight more months.

Their water has been coming from the state’s disaster relief stocks since Dec. 16. Testing found lead-contaminated drinking water flowing into a quarter of the homes in the northeast Louisiana town of roughly a thousand people.

Before St. Joe residents can brush their teeth with tap water again, the town’s entire water system will have to be replaced. Hopes initially were that happen would soon. Now it looks like the end of September, at least, according to the February report by David Greer, who was appointed by a state district court judge to oversee the town’s finances.

Louisiana Department of Health employees arrived the week before Christmas and started testing the drinking water from every one of the 470 homes, businesses, and schools on the town’s system.

Since January, state health officials have been focusing on the residents of the 38 homes with lead levels above 50 parts per billion – federal law requires action at 15 parts per billion.

Early indications is that the situation in St. Joseph is not nearly as severe as the lead-laced water problems of Flint, Michigan, Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state’s health officer, told The Advocate Thursday.

Even before lead was found in St. Joseph, for years the water often came out of the faucet brown and smelly leaving many not drink it if they didn’t have to, he said. Secondly, few children live in St. Joseph these days as a lot of families have moved away from the economically depressed region.

“It’s the children we’re most concerned with. They’re the ones most likely to put lead paint chips in their mouths,” Guidry said. And children under the age six are the most vulnerable to lower IQs, hearing problems, anemia and other serious health problem caused by ingesting even small amounts of lead.

Only two of the 38 houses had children under the age of six, he said. Most of the homes with high readings were built prior to the 1970s when lead-based paint and lead pipes were commonly used.

Guidry’s Office of Public Health continues testing throughout the town but his scientists have focused intensely on the 38 homes with the highest readings. That’s where problems get compounded and could remain once the town’s water system is modernized.

The results of six tests are in and none show substantial lead levels, Guidry said, adding he’ll wait until all the tests have been analyzed before drawing any conclusions.

Since December, state officials also have been scrutinizing the annually required lead tests being made on 300 other small and poorly maintained systems that have the same leaky pipes, inefficient filtering and lack of financial resources that plague St. Joseph.

Guidry said he doesn’t know for sure yet, but judging from the years of tests that showed no lead contamination, he suspects that instability of St. Joseph’s system caused some of the old pipes and old repairs started flaking lead into the water.

The problem for most of these small communities is money. St. Joseph’s water system, in an average month, costs $36,305 to operate but raises only $17,250 in revenues, according Greer’s report. The town is in debt, owing $15,329 in back payments to the unemployment fund and $8,863 for unpaid tax deposits. Greer, a former state auditor from Watson, isn’t taking pay right now but eventually will have to bill the town for his court-appointed services as financial administration.

State money to replace the town’s water distribution lines became available on Jan. 22 and work has begun. The comprehensive replacement of the water distribution system will include installing about 64,000 feet of new water lines and 525 new water meters. The project is expected to cost $3.4 million and the official groundbreaking is set for March 6.

The consulting engineer for the project is H. Davis Cole & Associates LLC. The contractor for this phase is Womack & Sons Construction Group Inc.

The first invoice, for $808,588, is being processed, according to Greer’s report.

The court-appointed fiscal administrator also reported that refurbishing the treatment facility also has begun but the costs haven’t determined yet. The state has approved spending more than $1 million for equipment that would handle the levels of iron and manganese, which causes the water to sometimes come out of the tap brown.

Former state representative Bryant Hammett was hired as project manger for $240,000 using a grant from the Delta Regional Authority, according to Greer.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.