Water systems in need of $9B to meet codes

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(The Center Square) – A legislative task force on Friday heard from state officials on the status of Louisiana’s water systems in its bid to craft recommendations for improvements.

Amanda Ames, chief engineer for the Louisiana Department of Health, presented an outline to the Task Force on Solutions to Achieve Viability and Efficiency that showed the state’s 1,270 drinking water systems are rated a D- overall by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The situation has led to “a tremendous amount of emergency response in the last few years,” she said, with “about 200 (water systems) under formal enforcement for water quality issues or infrastructure problems.”

“We recently did a survey for EPA and it was estimated that it’s about $9 billion in need” to bring systems up to code, Ames said. About half of the state’s water systems are over 50 years old.

Community water systems total 951, of which 451 are government owned and 500 are private. Another 320 are non-community owned, including 54 government owned systems and 266 private. State law tasks the Health Department with grading the systems. In 2022, more than one-third (389) rated A, 255 rated B, 170 rated C, 55 rated D, and 82 rated F, Ames said.

Many of the systems are in small communities that rely on water revenues to survive, resulting in inadequate investments in maintaining and operating the systems. Other issues are tied to the workforce, officials said.

“We’ve seen a pretty significant decline in infrastructure in the last five to 10 years,” Ames said.

It’s a similar situation with wastewater, according to Scott Templet with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

The most recent 2017 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers rated Louisiana’s wastewater systems a C-, while a survey from 2022 pegged needed upgrade costs at $2.5 billion, Templet said.

He noted the survey only incorporated needs documented within the past five years, and many municipalities either lack management or capital improvement plans, or have not updated those plans in the last five years.

“Many of the communities, particularly the smaller communities, are more reactive instead of proactive,” Templet said. “So there’s not the sense of a plan in place or preventative maintenance, it’s just we fix what breaks.”

Of the state’s 343 permits for publicly owned sewer systems, 317 are “on the radar” for compliance issues, including 249 on the department’s quarterly non-compliance list, Templet said.

Others who testified Friday included the Louisiana Infrastructure Technical Assistance Corp., a nonprofit that assists municipalities and parishes with technical assistance and federal funding applications.

Leslie Durham, the executive director, told the task force the organization is developing a strategy to work with 17 cities and towns on the legislative auditor’s noncompliant list “to help them address … issues so they’re eligible to apply for federal funding.”

The task force is expected to continue hearings over the next year with the goal of crafting recommendations for lawmakers no later than Sept. 6, 2024.

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