Louisiana’s struggle with ailing water systems


BATON ROUGE, Louisiana – Driven by recent hurricanes and a rare winter storm that demonstrated the fragility of Louisiana’s public water supply, lawmakers have focused their attention on improving the ailing water systems of the ‘State.

Lawmakers created a new ranking metric for community water systems, earmarked $ 300 million in federal coronavirus assistance for upgrades, and allocated millions more in state cash for upgrades and upgrades. fixes during their recently terminated session. Governor John Bel Edwards supported the efforts.

Louisiana has nearly 1,300 water supply systems statewide. About half operate from structures over 50 years old, according to reports documenting their vulnerabilities. In some rural areas, systems are on the verge of failure and face such a loss of population that they do not have enough money for proper maintenance.

“If we fix everyone and everything that should be fixed, that’s about $ 4 billion in estimated costs,” Desiree Honoré Thomas, of the Democratic Governor’s Administration Division, told lawmakers.

This considerable sum could have further underestimated the scale of the problems. A 2018 U.S. environmental protection agency suggested Louisiana’s 20-year funding needs for drinking water infrastructure exceeded $ 7 billion.

“We now have what we believe are the resources to make a significant impact and change on these systems,” said House of Credit Speaker Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Republican from Houma.

Zeringue co-chairs a 10-member water sector legislative commission created to decide which community water and sewer systems should share the $ 300 million in federal pandemic aid. It has already held its first meeting.

The Edwards administration, which will run the application portal and manage the grants, told the commission it intended to submit recommendations for prioritizing projects by mid-July to open the period. application date on August 1.

The need to harden hydraulic infrastructure is an obvious and bipartite issue.

When Hurricane Laura struck a wide path of destruction across Louisiana in August, it destroyed 121 water supply systems and temporarily left hundreds of thousands of people without water. More than 150 other water supply systems have suffered disruptions that have forced people to boil their water for safe use.

The February winter storm that knocked snow and ice across Louisiana once again disrupted systems, leaving hundreds of thousands without clean water and hospitals trucking water for care to patients.

William Daniel, director of the Shreveport water and sewer system, believes even multibillion-dollar estimates of the problem are underestimated. He told lawmakers the town of Shreveport, which suffered a week of water cuts in February, likely has $ 2 billion in needs on its own.

Amanda Ames, chief engineer with the Louisiana Department of Health, told the Water Sector Commission that her agency has already identified 182 drinking water systems statewide that have $ 146 million in projects deemed “critical”.

Lawmakers also intend to make lists of the state’s most fragile water supply systems – and more understandable problems – known to the public through a new ranking system.

The bill creating the classification, pushed by Republican Senator for the Parish of St. Martin Fred Mills, gained unanimous legislative support and was proclaimed into law. The Department of Health will need to develop an A to F grading system, similar to how the Department of Education rates public schools.

Mills said public information about water supply systems is often very technical and difficult to decipher.

When someone can see an F rated system, “the public is like, ‘Why do I have to live under this type of water system?'” Mills told lawmakers.

Water supply systems will be judged based on their violations of water quality, financial viability, customer satisfaction and other criteria. The health service will have to publish the notes online. Any community water system that receives a D or an F could be subject to corrective measures and will have to submit improvement plans.

Mills is hoping that communities that get water from poorly rated systems could have discussions about consolidating with higher rated systems. While Louisiana has nearly 1,300 water supply systems, he noted that Alabama has around 400.

Some water system executives are spending money on unrelated projects, while others are unwilling to suggest needed price hikes to consumers because they don’t want to get hurt politically, Mills said.

“I think having this scorecard system is going to blatantly highlight weaknesses that some water systems just don’t want to deal with,” he told his colleagues.

The first notes aren’t due until 2023 – but the state could issue them earlier to reconcile the effort with the funding.

Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for the Associated Press since 2000.

Representatives Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, and Jean-Paul Coussan, R-Lafayette, examine the language of the bill on the floor of the House on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (AP Photo / Melinda Deslatte)


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