Drinking Water Crisis

The state's small town drinking water problems are at a crisis stage, and the governor's emergency response team is looking for help from the Legislature. New laws are needed, and funds have to be found to pay fiscal administrators.

Fiscal administrators have near dictatorial powers to push aside a town's local elected officials, according to The Advocate. The administrators can raise fees and rates, reorganize departments and lay off local government employees.

The Louisiana Department of Health issued a report that said 556 of 1,366 public water systems statewide — about 40 percent — were in violation of drinking water standards during 2018. There were 1,762 boil advisories issued last year, but the newspaper said that doesn't necessarily mean system failure. Water line repairs might be taking place in some instances.

About 58 percent of the state's public systems are a half-century old or older, far beyond their life span. Some have been poorly maintained, if at all. Drinking water infrastructure has been graded a D-minus, and in 2011 it was estimated it would cost taxpayers about $5.3 billion to fix the poorly managed systems.

Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state's health officer, said many of the water systems are too small to be sustainable and need to merge with nearby systems in order to create a larger customer base. However, some of the larger systems don't want to absorb a smaller one that is in need of repairs.

Gov. John Bel Edwards last March formed the state Rural Water Infrastructure Committee to assist troubled water systems. The job of the committee is to guide locals about how to seek grants, loans and technical assistance to repair old and neglected pipes and pumps.

A Fiscal Administrator Revolving Loan Fund was created in 2014. The goal was to pay administrators from the fund and the municipalities would repay the fund after getting back on their feet. Unfortunately, legislators never made the initial appropriation to the fund.

State officials are trying to take steps to avoid a repeat of what happened in the town of St. Joseph, the parish seat of Tensas Parish. It cost the state $10 million to immediately repair infrastructure that had started leaching lead into the drinking water.

The Legislature appears to have failed to take the steps necessary to help prevent what has now become a statewide drinking water crisis. So it's time for lawmakers to step up and make amends for past failures.

This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Crystal Stevenson, John Guidroz, retired editor Jim Beam and retired staff writer Mike Jones.

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