With a multimillion-dollar state loan for improvements in hand, Clinton officials are confident the town's water woes will soon be over.
The East Feliciana Rural Water System, a customer-owned cooperative that took over Clinton’s water utility last April, recently got $2.5 million from the Louisiana Department of Health to consolidate the two agencies. Armed with new funding, the water co-op will now be able to install thousands of feet of new pipelines in Clinton, connect the town to the rest of the system and upgrade the main well — likely bringing an end to years of troubles.
“When they turn on the water faucet now, they should have confidence that the water they’re receiving is good safe drinking water,” Melissa Sanders, the co-op's executive director, said in an interview. “They don’t have to worry about contaminations and color and all that stuff.”
Funding comes from the Louisiana Department of Health’s Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund, a pilot program that provides 100% forgivable debt for approved water system consolidations to eliminate “threat(s) to public health.”
The program was motivated by Clinton officials ceding control of its water system to the East Feliciana co-op. If Clinton had pursued the loan without consolidating, it would not have been forgivable and residents could have seen their monthly water bill increase by as much as $27, Sanders explained.
Because of that debt forgiveness, consolidation was the most cost-effective way to bring the town's water supply into compliance with state health regulations, Clinton Mayor Mark Kemp said.
"There's a lot of work to be done," he said. "The problems didn't just happen with the last administration, and we just need to move forward. It's at a snail's pace, in a sense — every day something comes up and you have to prioritize. That's what we're doing and trying to spend wisely."
Clinton's water system had long failed to pass state standards, with frequent boil notices and water shortages becoming a way of life for residents.
The town came under intense regulatory scrutiny in 2018 after then-Mayor Lori Ann Bell allegedly ignored inquiries from state health officials, while some members of the town's Board of Aldermen said Bell kept them in the dark about the problems facing the town.
Health officials slapped the town with a lengthy administrative order in January 2019, setting a series of deadlines for Clinton to correct 16 problems with its water supply and distribution, including inadequate chlorine levels, shoddy record-keeping, the lack of a certified operator, ongoing leaks, no backup well to the main water supply, among other issues.
Bell resigned in November 2019 after pleading "no contest" to a misdemeanor financial crime unrelated to the town's water woes.
Louisiana's health regulators that same year began pushing Clinton officials to consolidate with the co-op in hopes of addressing the long-standing issues. Since the merger went through last April, the co-op has only been able to put “Band-Aids” on Clinton’s deteriorating water system while it awaited the $2.5 million from the state, Sanders said.
“I’m told some of (the water lines) look like Swiss cheese, and if you thump it, it just deteriorates,” Sanders said. “So we’ve patched what we absolutely had to to prevent damage to property or risk life.”
The co-op is now about a month into its overhaul of Clinton’s system, which is expected to be completed sometime in 2022, Sanders said.
“With Clinton, we refer to it as the town of Clinton system, but it’s East Feliciana Rural Water, and we will maintain that system the way we do the rest of the system,” Sanders said. “As long as I have anything to say or do about it, we will make sure we address all the problems that need to be addressed and do so in a timely manner.”