Environment
 

Tough choices ahead for Louisiana’s struggling water systems

Tom Wright / The Lens

Volunteer Ken Clark inspects water and disinfectant holding tanks inside the shed of the Ozone Pines water system, just outside the Slidell city limits.

State authorities warn that local communities will have to make tough choices — and soon — as they cope with public water systems that are showing their age and falling apart, especially in rural areas Louisiana.

The options are limited and all of them are expensive. In a 2011 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated a cost of over $5.3 billion to address all the needs of water systems across the state. But the alternative to dealing with aging public water systems now is to recast clean drinking water as a luxury item, no longer to be taken for granted by the public at large and available only to those who can afford to secure their own water sources.

One person all too familiar with the high cost of water service is Ken Clark, acting operator of the Ozone Pines subdivision’s water system outside Slidell. Clark is a boat mechanic by trade but agreed about 12 years ago to help maintain the small well system, which serves about 75 people — living in about 30 houses in the neighborhood — in rural St. Tammany Parish, according to state records.

When Clark built his own home at Ozone Pines in 2005, he said, a previous well manager had died recently and that manager’s elderly daughter tried to manage the system herself, but couldn’t. Clark says he considered digging his own well, instead of using the old artesian well sitting on an abandoned property in the neighborhood.

“And I said, well, if I do that, I’m going to cut everybody off in the neighborhood, and I’m not going to do that,” Clark told The Lens. So he connected the pipes to his new home to the well system and tried to manage it himself.

Clark said he has been fixing pumps and maintaining the system with money out of his own pocket. He estimated that he’s spending more than $4,000 of his own money annually to maintain the system. A burst pipe a few years ago cost him more than $8,000, he said.

Clark said the 30 or so nominal customers of the Ozone Pines system are not paying him for the service, but he hasn’t cut them off — the system has no meters and no shut-offs, he said.

Source: La. Department of Health.

Clark said it’s been three or four months since he’s heard from authorities. But state health officials have been monitoring the Ozone Pines system. They’ve written up the system for a long series of violations, including failure to maintain adequate levels of chlorination to disinfect water coming from the well and failure to take routine samples in compliance with the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which limits the amounts of those toxic substances in drinking water.

“They even tried to take me to court on the violations,” Clark said. “And that was cancelled because I told them, ‘Look, I’ve been trying to fix this problem. I’ve been to Baton Rouge, I’ve got everything.’ So, they stopped it.”

Records from the St. Tammany Parish Clerk of Court indicate that in 2017 a judge appointed a temporary receiver, Gilbride’s Aqua Service, to take over managing the water service. But according to the state Department of Health, that company’s owner declined.

Clark said that once he explained his situation to the Health Department’s attorney, he was allowed to continue running the system while authorities sought either to find an official operator for Ozone Pines or consolidate it with another nearby systems. Nearby Resolve Whisperwood Estates and Magnolia Forest water systems are mentioned as candidates.

‘A hiccup away from catastrophe’

The Ozone Pines water system is one of 10 on a state list of rural water systems that are in immediate need of assistance. But Clark said state officials have done little to help him so far.

“The only thing they’ve been trying to do is find somebody to take it off my hands,” he said. “And that ain’t been successful at all. And I said, ‘Well, why don’t you come in and help me fix the well and do what we need to do to make the well to where it’s… all up to date, you know? Then, they’re not for that and I don’t hear from them no more.

“I’m trying to figure this out, figure out a way to where, you know, I can keep it and the people can stay on it,” Clark said, “because they’ve got people who are elderly. They don’t have the money to dig a well.”

Source: La. Department of Health

Leslie Durham, who chairs the governor’s Rural Water Infrastructure Committee, said the state’s priority list is compiled by evaluating several factors, including the size of the systems in question and their customer bases, the quality of the water they provide, how the systems are presently managed and the state of their finances.

Durham said the 10 systems on the current list checked off all the boxes. “We kind of considered them as being, like — and these are my words — a hiccup away from catastrophe,” she said.

Governor John Bel Edwards created the RWIC less than a year ago, prompted by some critical water system failures in rural communities.*

One of those failures occurred in late 2016, after a pump broke down in the Robeline-Marthaville water system, near Natchitoches in northwest Louisiana. “They were having trouble getting water up and down the hill,” Durham recalls.

That emergency affected 481 customers, who lost their water service shortly before Christmas.

Durham said many small, rural systems face similar risks.

“They may have a pump go out, like the Robeline-Marthaville situation, and they don’t have enough financial savings to be able to replace the pump,” she said. “One little-bitty thing, one little thing happens more than what’s going on right now and we’re delivering water. That’s kind of how we looked at them. Now, of course, there are more, and there are more that we’re working with.”

The state will deliver water to communities only in emergency situations, Durham says. In the case of the Robeline-Marthaville system, the Red Cross delivered some water while a temporary pump was installed.

Aging water systems across the state

Eighty-eight percent of Louisiana’s 4.68 million people depend on public systems for their drinking water, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That includes systems as small as Ozone Pines to New Orleans’ Sewerage & Water Board. The remaining 12 percent of residents primarily uses private wells.

The conditions of those aging public systems are a point of serious concern. The problem was highlighted just two years ago, when the American Society of Civil Engineers published its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. Louisiana drew a grade of “D-” for drinking water services.

Among the study’s findings:

  • 58 percent of Louisiana’s public systems were built before 1960. “Many of these systems are neglected until an immediate need arises, such as a significant leak in the pipe network,” the ASCE wrote.
  • Maintenance costs are rising because so many systems are in operation well past their “intended design life”, requiring more frequent maintenance and replacement of system components.
  • Even when components are scheduled for replacement, “it is likely that some of the materials used to construct older systems are no longer used in the industry,” requiring a significant reworking of entire systems.
  • Fewer than 70 percent of public water systems using aquifer sources — essentially underground layers of rock or similar substance bearing water — have wellhead protection plans in place, as required by federal law to protect such groundwater sources from contamination.

State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry said the subject of failing water systems, especially in rural communities, remains a topic for serious discussion in Baton Rouge as more and more residents turn to the state for help.

“When you look at Louisiana, we have over 1,300 water systems,” Guidry said. “And when you look at other states our size, they might have 500 or 600 water systems.”

Guidry says many of these water systems serve rural communities that are struggling to survive.

One option for these systems is to borrow funding. The EPA gives the state health department money to loan to such small communities through the Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund. The program’s website notes it offers a 2.45-percent interest rate with “a typical loan repayment period of 20 years.”

“If they can afford to borrow low interest to pay for all of this, it’s an ability to maintain,” Guidry told The Lens. “And maintaining is much cheaper than trying to replace. So, trying to get some of these older systems to maintain should be our first goal, before they get to the point where they’re failing and everything has to be replaced, because that is just not affordable.”

Durham said a separate revolving loan program is offered to help smaller systems hire fiscal administrators to manage the books.*

“We have several that right now qualify for fiscal administration but can’t afford it,” Durham said. “It’s a situation like St. Joseph; they couldn’t afford it. Their fiscal administrator went without being paid for many months.”

The small town of St. Joseph is a critical case in point here. The governor declared a public health emergency there after samples from two of 13 test sites in the town came back with elevated levels of lead in 2016.

“The Town of St. Joseph has experienced water problems for years due to the poorly maintained and deteriorating water distribution system,” read a December 2016 news release from the Department of Health. “Frequent breaks in the water distribution system provide a potential health risk because of the drop in water pressure.”

The brown, lead-laden water coming out of the taps in St. Joseph, home to about 1,000 people, was so bad that it was featured in reporting by national news outlets, including CNN and NPR. Residents were told to find alternative water sources of personal use, “including making ice, brushing teeth or using it for food preparation and rinsing of foods.”

State emergency authorities delivered bottled water to the town for months, with each individual receiving three liters a day, and ordered an administrator to go in and take over the town’s water system finances.

Rebuilding the town’s water system took 14 months to complete and cost more than $9 million, covered at the time by grants and state tax funding. St. Joseph customers have clean drinking water again. But their water bills have gone up about 45 percent from what they were before the emergency declaration, according to a report in The Advocate.

A second option for struggling water providers is consolidation: smaller systems combining with neighboring water systems, as LDH hopes to do with Ozone Pines. Such a move creates a larger customer base and, theoretically, makes necessary repairs and upgrades more affordable.

“The third option is actually to go back to the days that we moved from,” Guidry said. “If you cannot afford where you live to have a system and you cannot join a larger system, you may have to have your own well.”

But Guidry said that is by no means ideal.

“Those [private] wells are shallow and it’s not a good quality of water to begin with,” he said. “And people have to pay dearly. Even if you decide, ‘Well, you know what? I can’t afford a well, I’m just going to buy bottled water,’ that’s not going to address their needs for public safety and firefighting and the things that they might need to protect life.”

Durham with the RWIC said delivering water to these communities is impractical and cannot be viewed as a permanent solution.

“A lot of communities don’t understand,” she said. “They think, ‘Oh, the state’s bringing that community water, they went without and now the state is bringing them water.’ Well, somebody has got to pay for that water; the community that is getting the water still has to pay for it. And it’s expensive, especially if the National Guard is delivering that water.”

Tom Wright / The Lens

Ken Clark says he’s been running the Ozone Pines water system for about 12 years.

Meanwhile, Ken Clark said he continues to struggle with the old well system for the Ozone Pines neighborhood. The well itself sits on Lowerline Street off Brownswitch Road, next to an old shed with a leaky roof where the system’s pumps and filters are kept.

“A friend of mine, he’s got a chlorine business,” Clark said as he inspected his well equipment. “And he gives me the chlorine. We trade out a lot.”

Inadequate levels of chlorine are among the numerous violations for which Ozone Pines has been cited for the state. But Clark said he’s limited on how much chlorine he can put into the system.

“I can’t just take advantage of [his friend],” he said. “He’s trying to help me out.”

Clark said his yearly costs include replacing old pipelines, paying for excavation crews and sealing off a leaking wellhead. While the state did not verify that he’s spending the $4,000 to $5,000, he claims to be spending on average in a year, health officials acknowledged that he is paying the electric bills to keep the system’s water pumps running.

“When you start hiring people to dig up and do this and do that,” Clark said. “You’re talking serious money going on. So, I’m just holding on as long as I can until everybody can figure out what to do.”

*Corrections: As originally published, this story incorrectly reported that the Rural Water Infrastructure Committee was formed in December 2016. It was actually created in 2018. The story also incorrectly identified a revolving loan program as being run by the RWIC. It is run by the state Legislative Auditor. (Jan. 24, 2019)

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About Tom Wright

Tom Wright is a staff writer and producer covering the environmental beat for The Lens. He also hosts and produces The Lens' podcast Behind The Lens. His previous work includes investigative producing with local broadcaster Lee Zurik, legislative affairs reporting for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and global affairs coverage for CNN. Wright is a winner of the DuPont, Peabody and Murrow awards for his investigative production work.