Your Rural Water System May Be Close To A Flint-Like Crisis


ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) — Seven of the 10 most distressed water systems in the state are in Central Louisiana, according to the governor's Rural Water Infrastructure Committee.

The committee is tasked with helping at-risk water systems to address their issues before they reach a crisis point. One of its first priorities was developing a list of the state's water systems most in need of immediate action.

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Among the 10 systems on the list are the Hammock Water System in Rapides Parish; the Rogers Community Water System and Town of Tullos Water System in LaSalle Parish; the Clarence Water System and Powhatan Water System in Natchitoches Parish; the Enterprise Water System in Catahoula Parish; and the Town of Clayton Water System in Concordia Parish.

"We are seeing issues with management, financial, operational and aging infrastructure," said Leslie Durham, who heads the committee. "Sometimes all of them at the same time."

"What we're seeing is a lot of small systems that don't have large revenue streams are struggling to meet the requirements to protect public health," said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state's health officer. "The governor said, 'This has been an issue over and over, let's get ahead of it.' That was the thinking behind this committee. How can we use our resources to best avoid another St. Joe?"

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Guidry is referencing St. Joseph, a small town in Tensas Parish where the state and town had to scramble to find almost $10 million to overhaul the system when dangerous levels of lead and copper were found in the water in 2016.

The list of 10 systems the Rural Water Infrastructure Committee came up with isn't a list of the worst systems in the state, health officials are quick to point out, or even the ones with the most violations.

But all of those 10 systems have serious issues that, if not fixed, could lead to a health crisis. Maybe even one as bad as St. Joseph.

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Five of the seven systems in Central Louisiana on the list are under an administrative order for not fixing their problems, and a sixth only recently came into compliance after being under an administrative order.

Six have been cited for having contaminants in their water since 2016, five of them for the contaminant trihalomethanes, or TTHM, which precipitated the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in 2015.

These issues aren't unique to these systems; they're just the ones judged to be closest to a crisis point. Many, if not most, of the small, rural systems in the state face similar challenges.

There are many systems in the state that "are only a hiccup away from being in the top tier," Durham said.

According to Guidry, more than half the systems in the state are operating with infrastructure that's more than 50 years old. A 2011 Environmental Protection Agency report estimated Louisiana would need to spend $5.3 billion to get its drinking water infrastructure up to par.

The cash-strapped state does not have the means to tackle those expensive issues. But the hope is the committee approach — which brings state, regional and federal agencies together — can have an impact.

The initial focus is on the 10 most distressed systems, but the goal is to work with systems throughout the state that are in need of improvement.

"All of our agencies have these resources," Durham said. "It's matter of coordinating those resources and really focusing in on these water systems to find solutions."

'We saw this could work'

The Rural Water Infrastructure Committee was officially formed in March, but its roots trace back to a crisis in Natchitoches Parish in late 2016.

The Robeline-Marthaville Water System had been experiencing problems for some time when it lost a pressure tank around Thanksgiving. Without the tank, water couldn't be pushed through the hilly terrain and get to customers.

Delta Regional Authority — where Durham serves as a board member — was contacted on a Tuesday, a few days before Christmas. By then, some people in the area had been without water for nearly a month.

By Thursday, funding had been secured through DRA and a booster pump was installed to get water flowing again. Soon after, a conversation was started about how to address the system's long-term issues (it has since been absorbed by Sabine Water District No. 1).

"That was the first experience of everybody coming together and zeroing in on what this community needs," Durham said. "We saw that this could work."

That model was repeated multiple times, Durham said, before it was codified in the form of the infrastructure committee.

What can the committee do to help struggling water systems?

The key is helping these communities find resources they may not know how to access on their own. Such resources could take the form of technical assistance for a small system that is having trouble properly treating its water. Or help in obtaining loans and grants to address infrastructure issues. Or aiding in forming a long-term plan to ensure maintenance needs are met and improvements are made to keep a system up to date.

"I certainly hope they can help us," said Flora Shinnick, secretary/treasurer of the Rogers Community Water System. The system is an outlier on the most distressed list since it has not shown contaminants in its water, but holes in its water tower make future contamination a threat. "We're a small water system. We're not sure what we can do on our own."

"We're still in the early stages, but are very optimistic because we can already see that coordinating our efforts is much better for all parties involved," Durham said. "Clean, safe drinking water should be a top priority for all of us. Now it is."

– by Jeff Matthews, AP reporter

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