The tiny burg of St. Joseph is the seat of rural Tensas Parish in the Mississippi Delta, but it recently got a lot of attention for a problem that would be familiar to Uptown residents in New Orleans: drinking water.
State emergency funds were used to make repairs to the "St. Joe" system, but as with many other small water providers around Louisiana, maintenance has not kept up. The economics of a small system are daunting, but that's also true in big cities.
Sound familiar, New Orleans? In the heart of the biggest metropolitan area of the state, there have been dismaying instances of boil-water advisories, too. For a city with a huge tourist economy, bottles of water at fine hotels does not inspire confidence in our client base.
The good news is that, as was noted during the recent observance of United Nation's World Water Day just passed, Americans on the whole have great water supplies compared to much of the population of the globe.
“We in this country have no idea how fortunate we are,” said Pat Mulroy, an expert from the U.S. Mountain West, where water supplies are a difficult issue. "We are a small minority around the world that actually has reliable 24/7 water.”
At the same time, she said in a recent Brookings Institution paper, climate change and structural problems like inattention to maintenance of water systems will put new stress on American providers of fresh water.
In Louisiana, cities badly damaged by hurricanes and floods, particularly New Orleans, can gain federal funding to do some repairs and along the way upgrade the infrastructure.
In rural areas, though, the St. Joseph crisis has shown a real problem in basic services. With few customers, in rural areas where population has declined in recent decades, how do you pay for the repairs and upgrades that will keep fresh water flowing?
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Russel Honoré now heads the "Green Army" coalition against pollution. In a talk to the Press Club of Baton Rouge, he mentioned the places where tap water is the color of tea.
"We can't afford to put $8 million into water systems for 500 people," he said, alluding to the St. Joe rescue. "That's not sustainable."
Honoré said the state and local governments need to work out some new way to address such problems, and he's right, although the State Capitol has a pretty poor track record in sorting out responsibilities among local agencies, parishes and cities, and the Baton Rouge bureaucracy.
The Public Service Commission and others have encouraged mergers of the smallest systems, so that economies of scale can improve maintenance. The Legislative Auditor's Office, though, recently reported that many small systems continue to lose money, making the prospects for maintenance and quality upgrades poorer.
Water and sewer costs are on the rise across the nation, Brookings expert say, but few officials in the biggest cities believe that the costs of infrastructure will be covered by those price hikes.
So if Americans can in general count their blessings on World Water Day, challenges are ahead, even for us in this country, and particularly in Louisiana.