Louisiana Boil Water Notices Paint A Picture Of The State’s Failing Drinking Water Infrastructure
This story was co-published with the Louisiana Illuminator.
As far back as Fannie King, 39, can remember, there have been problems with the drinking water in Tallulah, a small city in northeastern Louisiana. King's experienced water outages, discolored water and backups that cause the water to drain slowly. “As long as I’ve been living, there’s always been a complaint about what they were going to do,” she said. “The piping system that runs through Tallulah is so old in the residential areas.”
The problems with Tallulah's drinking water system are not unique, but they’re among the worst in Louisiana when it comes to frequent water disruptions. The Illuminator and WWNO/WRKF analyzed a year’s worth of boil water notices throughout the state to get a glimpse of the problems plaguing rural water systems. Boil water notices are issued when there’s a drop in pressure in the water — usually from a break in a pipe — that could allow contaminants to enter the system.
Customers are encouraged to boil their water for one minute before drinking it or using it to brush their teeth, until the notice is cleared. Before a water boil notice can be lifted the water must be tested for bacteria. There are 1,600 to 1,700 water boil notices per year across the state, said Amanda Ames, Louisiana Department of Health’s Chief Engineer.
St. Tammany Parish had 200 boil water notices unrelated to major storms during the time frame we examined, making it the parish with the most notices. The longest boil water notice occurred in Caldwell Parish and lasted 280 days. Parishes with bigger populations also had more boil water notices, presumably because more people means more pipes and a greater potential for a pipe break.
To account for this, we divided the number of boil notices by the population to create a rate of boil notices per person. Madison Parish, where Tallulah is located, had more boil water notices per person than any other parish from October 2019 to October 2020. Madison Parish is the second poorest parish in the state. There were 43 boil water notices in the parish not related to major storms during the time frame examined.
A main break in May 2020 caused the longest boil water notice in Madison Parish, which affected an entire water system and lasted more than two months. The Louisiana Department of Health has issued two administrative orders against Tallulah: one for failing to have a certified water operator at the treatment plant on every shift and another for water treatment facilities that are not up to code. The town owed LDH $689,850 as of April, and fines continue to accrue daily, said LDH spokesman Kevin Litten.
Meanwhile, residents say they are paying for water that they cannot drink. “This has to be a state of emergency for Tallulah,” Shawn James wrote in a Tallulah community Facebook group. “I don’t mean light brown, this water Yoo-hoo, Nesquik, sweet tea, Coca Cola, Pepsi…” Bryan Walker, who also posted concerns in the Facebook group, said his water bill is typically about $70 per month. But there was a period last year when he experienced water outages every two weeks, each time triggering a water boil notice.
“For drinking water, you have to buy it. Most people buy gallons of water for coffee,” he said. But when it comes to bathing his children, Walker can’t afford to get water from elsewhere. “There’s not anything we can do about it, except let them bathe in it,” he said. “It ruins their clothes. It ruins their sheets.”
Fewer than 7,000 people live in Tallulah, and about 40% of them live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data. About 8 in 10 residents are Black. A Natural Resources Defense Council analysis of 2016 to 2019 Environmental Protection Agency data found that drinking water systems in constant violation of the law were 40% more likely to serve populations with higher percentages of residents who were people of color. “As a scientist, I was surprised to find that race had the strongest relationship to the length of time people had to live with drinking water violations. But as a Black woman, I was not surprised at all,” wrote Kristi Pullen Fedinick, NRDC’s Director of Science and Data. “It is a travesty that the nation's drinking water law does not protect everyone equally.”
The NRDC report also found that poor rural communities – those that serve fewer than 3,300 people – were responsible for more than 80% of all violations. This holds true in Louisiana. The state issues 35 to 50 administrative orders per year, mainly for systems that have fewer than 500 customers, Ames, the department’s chief engineer, said. Like 58% of drinking water infrastructure in Louisiana, Tallulah’s water system was built before 1960. Of the 1,287 water systems that the Louisiana Department of Health oversees, 260 are under formal enforcement, she said in a Louisiana Senate committee hearing last month. That’s about 20% of water systems in the state that are not up to code.
In April, Tallulah was approved for a $4 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan and $3.7 million in USDA grants, said Tallulah Mayor Charles Finlayson. The money will be used to overhaul the town’s water plant and transition it away from using lime to treat the water. “I campaigned on getting the water fixed, and I think this will go a long way in solving some of the problems,” Finlayson said.
The city council narrowly approved a water rate increase before the USDA grants were announced. Finlayson said he’s willing to consider lowering rates once the grant is in city coffers. But King said she’s concerned money collected from water bills is not being fully committed to fixing the water system. Tallulah City Clerk Gerald Odom said that was the case years ago, but fees collected for water now only go to the water enterprise.
State lawmakers are also trying to address the issue. Sen. Fred Mills, Jr. (R-New Iberia), who says he’s heard from his constituents in Southwest Louisiana about similar water issues, introduced legislation this spring to create a statewide accountability system that would give each water system a letter grade reflecting the system’s water quality and performance. Water systems graded D and F would be mandated to use 100% of water payments toward fixing and maintaining the water system. “If you know as a consumer that your water system is rated an A that’s great. If it’s rated an F that would bring up some discussions,” Sen. Mills said in a telephone interview about his proposal, Senate Bill 129, which was approved by the Senate and is now headed to the Louisiana House. “I tried to model it after the ratings in school systems.”
The presence of iron and manganese is likely the reason that Walker, the father in Tallulah, is seeing brown water fill up his children’s tub. The state does not regulate the presence of iron and manganese in drinking water and the metals do not cause health issues. But as Walker said, they turn water brown, which stains clothes and clogs up water heaters. “We have lots of water systems with this issue. It’s very confusing to the public when we tell them it’s actually not regulated,” Ames, the health department’s chief engineer, said. “But this bill would actually allow us to capture that as part of the grading system.”
Recent weather events — such as the February 2021 freeze and Hurricane Laura — have illustrated how climate change is putting drinking water systems further at risk. The Illuminator and WWNO/WRKF analyzed a separate database of boil water notices related to Hurricane Laura. Calcasieu Parish, which suffered devastating impacts from the Category 4 hurricane, had 67 boil water notices. Lake Charles was on a boil water notice for 26 days following the storm. The notice was systemwide, affecting 85,000 people. As of March of this year, four water systems knocked out by the hurricane remained on boil water notices, including a water system in Cameron Parish serving nearly 1,400 people.
One reason water systems go out during storms is a lack of adequate backup power, which has been a state requirement since 2018. At least 17 water systems in the state have been cited for lacking standby power, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
Sen. Jay Luneau (D-Alexandria) said when the February 2021 ice storm hit, water workers throughout his district scrambled to get generators in place to keep systems online. Luneau said he hoped federal funding for infrastructure would be available to help those water systems come up to par. “Because a lot of these municipalities dont have the money to go buy the generators that are necessary to keep their water systems up and going,” he said in a Senate committee hearing last month. “But at the same time if you’re going to have a water system, you need to be prepared and you need to be in compliance.”
Last week, President Joseph Biden visited a water plant in New Orleans. His administration announced an infrastructure plan in March that includes $111 billion for improving drinking-water infrastructure. But the state’s drinking water infrastructure is expected to require $7 billion in additional funding over the next 20 years, the President’s Deputy press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre said. In 2017, the Louisiana Section of American Society of Civil Engineers’ rated the state’s drinking water a D-.
The Louisiana Senate unanimously passed bill SB 129 in April. The bill must now be approved by the Louisiana House of Representatives to become law. Walker said he’s hopeful that the USDA funding and new regulations under the Senate bill will improve Tallulah’s drinking water system. “It’s in dire need of it,” he said.