Shortly after the governor’s new kitchen cabinet on drinking water issues decided to form a kind of SWAT team to swoop in when emergencies arose, the mayor of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ hometown phoned.

A water pipe in the Tangipahoa Parish town of Roseland had broken a month ago, leaving many of the 1,200 residents without drinking water.

“We had decided on the IRT, our initial response team, the day before, then we got the call and realized this is perfect. We can get out there, get our feet wet, and see how working together would look,” said Leslie Durham, who heads the water infrastructure task force created by Edwards on March 22.

Edwards’ panel, for the first time, put representatives of all the different agencies dealing with drinking water in one place. Durham is the governor’s designee on one of those agencies, the federally based Delta Regional Authority.

Each agency has its own hammer that goes into these situations looking for a specific nail to pound, Durham said. The Department of Environmental Quality is about equipment, Louisiana Department of Health is about testing, for instance.

“We know within our own organizations, but we don’t know what is in the toolbox of other organizations,” Durham said. What usually happens is whatever agency is called will come up with a grant or a loan to replace the pipe.

This time, with all the agencies in tow, the IRT discovered several other problems in the 60-year-old system that would require another emergency repair in a few months. Pipes were leaking all over town. The meters hadn’t been calibrated since the 1970s. The rates have remained the same for decades. Town personnel needed training.

In one year, from 2015 to 2016, the cost of the town’s water and sewer system had grown 9 percent to $336,910 and was losing about $71,000 a year, according to the latest audit. Water and sewerage sales are the greatest source of revenue for the town, whose median family income is $22,333. It collected $185,043 in sales taxes and $64,903 in property taxes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture scrambled a field person to Roseland as part of the IRT.

“That was the first time I had met him and the first time I had heard about their engineering grant program,” Durham said. Roseland can’t afford the engineer who can oversee the machinery and predict needed repairs.

The team patched the pipe and recommended a federal grant to hire an engineer. A state agency started surveying the system to find the leaks. The Louisiana Rural Water Association began checking the meters, and a study of the rates is underway.

“In the past it was a band-aid approach,” said Pat Santos, a disaster assistance adviser in the governor’s office and a member of the IRT. “They had a broken pipe, give them some money and they fix the pipe. What we’re doing now is a complete assessment.”

From there, they can decide what needs immediate attention and identify future issues that can be dealt with over time.

Fifty-eight percent of the wells, filters, pumps and pipes that deliver drinking water to the people of Louisiana is more than a half-century old, according to a 2017 study by the American Society of Engineers. “They’re going to break down,” Santos said.

That’s apparent from the 1,701 boil advisories — to ensure water in broken systems is safe to drink — issued by the Department of Health in the past 12 months to 492 water systems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Service estimated a $5.3 billion statewide price tag — about half the state budget that legislators control in a given year.

“This is an uphill battle,” said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state health officer. “It’s going to take legislation to correct this.”

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But legislators, who have been wrangling for years over a budget that can’t raise enough revenues to pay for promised services, have been reluctant to wade into such a large problem. Though they have shot down bill after bill looking at a holistic approach, individual lawmakers have signed on to providing state money for about 100 individual projects. In the budget for state construction, called capital outlay, lawmakers have included $13.7 million in cash and $32.9 million in borrowing authority for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The epic failure in the small northeast Louisiana community of St. Joseph of 1,000 residents galvanized the thought that putting off repairs and maintenance much longer could result in catastrophe.

Drinking water flowing through 90-year-old pipes turned up with dangerous levels of lead, which causes brain problems at even low levels. Taxpayers had to rush to spend close to $9 million to replace St. Joseph’s water system.

It was shortly after Edwards drank the first glass of water from the new system on March 13 that he gathered with aides in St. Joseph.

“We were standing in my office,” recalled Durham, “and he said, ‘I am tired of being in the water business.’ ”

But St. Joseph had opened a can of worms. “We realized that it is all over the state. He wanted to do things a little differently than how it’s been done in the past and address these problems rather than just put Band-aids on them,” she said.

It’s a touchy subject for local officials as well.

For many small towns the sale of water is a major source of revenue, said John Gallagher, the head of the Louisiana Municipal Association and a member of the task force. “A lot of communities rely on water sales because they are losing their tax base as mom-and-pop shops that once lined Main Street are closing up,” he said.

Instead of using the money raised from selling water to maintain the system, the funds often are diverted to handle other expenses in the small town.

Melville Mayor Erana Mayes’ tenure has been clearing one hurdle after another to find enough money to qualify for the loans necessary to upgrade the town's drinking water infrastructure.

Two weeks ago, she received a 60-day reprieve from the Legislative Audit Advisory Board, which is poised to take over administration of the Acadiana town of 1,100 people. That’s how situations in small towns that can't get their finances in order are usually handled. Mayes promised the board that the town would continue its efforts to upgrade the meters and make sure everyone was paying their fair share.

After the hearing, Mayes said state administrators want to raise fees on residents for whom $10 or $20 more per month would be a significant sacrifice. “Somebody has to watch out for them. They need to have a voice had the table,” she said.

In the meantime, the governor’s task force is trying merge the various lists of problem spots that each agency has created. It’s an onerous task because each agency has its own criteria.

When the list is finished, the task force hopes to systematically visit each water district and come up with a plan and education to help local governments postpone the reckoning of a state takeover through the Legislative Audit Advisory Board or worse: an emergency that requires massive taxpayer intervention, Durham said.

“That’s the kind of partnership we’re talking about,” she said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.