Report: St. Bernard water system underfinanced _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- After a rare brian eating amoeba was found in the water system last fall, fire hydrants were opened to flush the water system like this one on Patricia St. in Arabi. A new report says the parish water system is severely underfunded.

A consulting firm hired by the St. Bernard Parish Council to evaluate the parish’s water system has found that current water rates are too low by almost a third, according to a preliminary report released this month.

The report also said the parish’s water usage is more than double the national average on a per-capita basis, likely the result of a high number of heavy industrial plants.

It recommended the parish implement a separate commercial rate so residents don’t shoulder a disproportionate share of a rate increase. That is already the practice in nearby industry-heavy parishes such as St. Charles and St. John the Baptist.

The findings come two months after the Parish Council agreed unanimously to delay action on a proposed 35 percent rate hike until an outside review of the water system was completed. The proposed increases, aimed at generating an extra $1.6 million annually, were introduced by Councilman Ray Lauga Jr., chairman of the council’s Water and Sewer Committee.

Lauga’s proposal largely is in line with the report’s conclusion that the parish’s “current rate structure is unsustainable and needs to be updated.”

St. Bernard’s water rates are 30 percent shy of breaking even, the report said, and its sewer rates are 80 percent below operating costs.

Also, the parish’s water system will need about $31 million in capital improvements currently in the works, including a $21 million effort to replace old, cast-iron waterlines that have a history of leaking, largely in Arabi and Violet.

In addition to needing infrastructure upgrades, the report said, St. Bernard’s water operations are significantly understaffed and regular maintenance has not been performed on the water system, which can lead to higher long-term costs. Ultimately, it said, the parish needs to hire at least 23 additional people to adequately staff its water operations, which will also contribute to higher rates.

“Rates will undoubtedly need to be increased even more than that in order to support capital and head count requirements,” the report said.

Under the increases proposed in March, a household using 10,000 gallons of water a month would pay $46.70, up from $34.27 for the same amount of water under the current rates.

The report was done by UtiliWorks, a Baton Rouge consulting firm that helps companies manage energy bills.

The parish’s water infrastructure has drawn heavy scrutiny since a 4-year-old boy died in August after contracting a rare brain-eating amoeba, apparently on a Slip ’N’ Slide at a mobile home near Violet.

Public health experts believe insufficient chlorine levels likely contributed to the presence of the amoeba in parts of the water system. In September, state tests showed water supplies in several parts of St. Bernard — including near where the boy is believed to have been infected — had low chlorine levels. The parish then started flushing its water lines with additional chlorine to minimize the threat of the single-cell organisms.

Recent drinking water samples have tested negative for the amoeba.

Some experts speculated the parish’s sharp population drop in the wake of Hurricane Katrina could be a factor in the problem. Because fewer residents are using the water, they suggested, it’s not moving as actively through the system.

Parish officials are working to get money from the Louisiana Department of Health & Hospitals’ drinking-water revolving loan fund to replace the cast-iron waterlines.

Lauga said this month’s report was the first of several that UtiliWorks has been contracted to conduct in order to evaluate the water system. Overall, the studies are expected to cost about $38,000 and should be finished in July, he said Monday.

He said the report has convinced him of the need for a separate rate structure for commercial users.

“It’s pretty obvious that the rate needs to be increased,” Lauga said.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.