Out of the hundreds of Louisiana’s dysfunctional drinking water systems, the governor’s kitchen cabinet has found the 10 worst on which they plan to focus first.
Mostly in central Louisiana with a couple in St. Tammany Parish and Acadiana, the top 10 — the governor’s office prefers to call them “most distressed” rather than “worst” — have deteriorating pipes and pumps, problems with managing the system, insufficient financing for maintenance, and water quality threats, said Leslie Durham, who heads the water infrastructure task force created by Gov. John Bel Edwards on March 22.
Edwards’ panel, for the first time, put in one place representatives from different state and federal agencies dealing with drinking water. Hopefully, Durham said, the task force working across jurisdictional lines can use their experiences dealing with the first 10 to develop procedures and protocols for the rest of the troubled systems.
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Of the state’s roughly 1,300 drinking water systems, about half operate infrastructure that is more than 50 years old.
Other systems have some of the problems — and they will be on a list eventually — but the 10 are the closest to crisis. The governor’s task force plans to work with these 10 systems before they get to the emergency level that the northeast Louisiana town of St. Joseph’s did in 2016, when dangerous levels of lead and copper required the total replacement of the pipes, filters and equipment at a cost to taxpayers of $9 million.
Eight of the targeted 10 systems are under state administrative orders for not addressing the problems inspectors have found. The state has issued 300 administrative orders to systems over the past three years.
Four of the 10 systems on the list have found traces of lead in single or multiple tests and didn’t properly inform the water customers. But lead findings alone didn’t get the systems on the list.
Louisiana has 20 drinking water systems since 2015 that had at least 10 percent of their multiple tests show that lead exceeds 15 micrograms per liter of water. Lead affects the part of the brain responsible for abstract thought, attention and memory.
Findings aren’t unusual given that lead pipes and lead-based solder repairs were common into the late 1970s. They can be dealt with using anti-corrosion chemicals. The real problem is when the pipes are so old and ill-maintained that the treatment doesn’t work, said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state’s health officer.
“There was no way to put in enough corrosion chemicals to correct the lead because the pipes were so leaky,” Guidry said about St. Joseph’s lead problem in 2016. “Lead is something you can do something about if you have a system that works.”
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The common thread among the 10 systems on the governor’s list is rickety infrastructure coupled with little money or expertise to fix the problem.
The unincorporated community of Enterprise, in Catahoula Parish, has problems keeping chlorine levels high enough to protect against bacteria. University testers have found lead in the drinking water. The Town of Melville, in St. Landry Parish, has been through several boil advisories. Both systems operate old pipes and leak a lot of water.
“We’ve been fortunate in that people aren’t getting sick,” Guidry said. “Sooner or later they’re not going to be able to treat the water because of so much water loss.”
Amanda Laughlin, the Louisiana Department of Health’s chief engineer, says Ozone Pines, a subdivision near Slidell, is on the list for its poor infrastructure, lack of funding and because nobody owns the water system.
“There’s no meters; no billing; no one responsible,” Laughlin said. “It’s one those situations where we hope to find a solution — and quickly.”
Many of Louisiana’s troubled water systems are in small rural towns that have become less viable as residents move to larger cities leaving a smaller base of customers to pay for maintaining increasingly aging pipes, tanks, filters. But a good number of problem systems serviced real estate developments and failed to evolve with the neighborhood.
Back in the early 1970s, a physician subdivided a cattle run near the cloverleaf where Interstates 10, 12 and 59 intersect in Slidell. He sold lots for 25 homes. He connected pipes from a well that had been on the property since the 1950s.
The system has no meters and all the homes are linked one after another on the pipes, so shutting off a nonpayer requires shutting off the entire system.
When the developer disappeared, a retiree volunteered and kept the pumps running for about 25 years. When the volunteer died a little more than a decade ago, Ken Clark jumped in to help.
“It’s a mess. The shed’s falling down,” said Clark, adding that the pump is held together with prayer and duct tape using whatever money his neighbors contribute to the effort. “I’ve been paying the electric bill.”
State inspectors thought Clark owned the facility and went to court hoping a judge would force an upgrade. But Clark doesn’t own the facility. He’s just a volunteer fix-it guy.
As new Slidell subdivisions have grown up around what 30 years ago was a cluster of houses at the end of a gravel road, Laughlin said one solution would be to connect Ozone Pines with one of those systems. It’s an idea Dr. Guidry likes, arguing that small systems don’t have enough customers to raise the money needed to keep up with maintenance.
But that’s not as easy as it sounds, even where new subdivisions have grown up on all sides of the older Ozone Pines. Extending a connection across bayous or under an interstate can be expensive. And then there’s the cost of upgrading the distribution lines, replacing the old pump and installing new meters. The elderly, fixed income residents of Ozone Pines can’t afford it and neighboring systems aren’t rushing to pick up what likely will be a considerable expense for 25 accounts.
A member of the governor’s task force, Laughlin said she is hoping experts from the dozen agencies that are members can come up with a patchwork of grants, loans and technical assistance that no single one of them could develop individually.
“That’s one of the purposes of the committee, bringing together all these different expertises to try to find solutions,” Laughlin said.
Durham, the group’s chair, recently drove out of cellphone range to the town of Rogers, near the Kisatchie National Forest, northeast of Alexandria.
Rogers, which is on the list, had a hole in their water tower and is under a Louisiana Department of Health boil advisory. The town council didn’t know what to do. But Rogers can’t afford an engineer and it doesn't know how to repair the hole at the top of the 80-foot-high water tower.
Durham is the governor’s designee to the multi-state Delta Regional Authority, which was established by the U.S. Congress to work on economic opportunities over eight states. Delta would be one of the agencies a small town would have called. But the task force allowed Durham to bring in officials from different agencies to brainstorm the problem.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture has money but needs a match. My department could help with a match,” Durham said. “Something we can do is leverage our resources.”
With all the agencies at the table, town officials were able to start applying for grants right then and there. The Louisiana Rural Water Association is trying to find the leaks and the Planning Commission is looking for grants.
“We’re literally trying to get started,” she said. “We’re cautiously moving forward.”