Commentary

In Louisiana, you’ve got your water bill and your drinking-water bill | Jarvis DeBerry

Buying bottled water is usually wasteful, but it’s often a necessity here

May 14, 2021 7:32 am

After running baby bottles through a dishwasher, the Walker family finds sediment from the Tallulah water system in the nipple of the bottle. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Walker.)

Do you remember the start of the pandemic when people rushed grocery stores and bought as much water as they could? And how those stores had to impose limits on how much individuals could purchase, lest they leave none on the shelves?

Grocers in Tallulah imposed such limits — 3 gallons of water per shopper — which may work fine as an anti-hoarding policy but doesn’t acknowledge that in a town where the tap water is typically brown and icky that shoppers would legitimately have need to buy more.

Bryan Walker, a 27-year-old Tallulah resident, said his family would buy more than three gallon jugs per shopping trip if they could, but he said he doesn’t have the storage space for the 30 gallons a month he’d need to buy every month if his family used bottled water to cook every meal.

Walker pays a single $73 bill for sewage, garbage pickup and water every month. He spends another $25 to $30 for water he’s not afraid to swallow. That’s up to $360 per year. Multiply that by every household in Tallulah. Because Walker said he doesn’t know anybody in Tallulah who doesn’t buy drinking water.

As reporter Sara Sneath notes in Thursday’s story about the state’s decrepit water systems, about 44% of Tallulah’s 6,666 people live in poverty. The per capita income is $14,832. It’s not just an inconvenience that water customers have to pay more for water to drink. It’s a financial burden.

The Louisiana Legislature wants to dedicate $300 million from federal COVID-19 relief money to the state’s water systems. The Biden administration says Louisiana needs $7 billion over the next 20 years to address its water infrastructure. Help will have to come from Baton Rouge and Washington because there’s no way a town as poor as Tallulah can fix its water problems by itself.

According to Consumer Reports, in 1994, American consumers bought 11 gallons of water a year and 42 gallons a year in 2018. In 2018 those purchases added up to $31 billion. Americans spent that much even though, the report notes, two-thirds of the water bottled in the U.S. is nothing but filtered tap water.

Americans have mostly fallen for the marketing campaign that promotes bottled over tap, and certainly there are people with disposable income who buy water not because they need to but only because they can.

However, that 2019 story in Consumer Reports reveals that Black people and poor people spend the most per month on bottled water and are most likely to say it’s safer than tap.

Here’s a thought: Maybe it is.

Louisiana boil water notices paint a picture of the state’s failing drinking water infrastructure

As Sneath reported, in a recent analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data, Kristi Pullen Fedinick, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Director of Science and Data, “found that race had the strongest relationship to the length of time people had to live with drinking water violations.”

Walker is White, but he lives in a town where 8 out of 10 people are Black and where, as already noted, most people are struggling financially. Tallulah is the parish seat of Madison Parish, the second poorest of the state’s 64 parishes.

Not only does the brown water coming out of his taps force his family to spend money he wouldn’t otherwise have to spend, but it forces them to rethink or reschedule tasks that others would do reflexively. Take bathing their 8-month-old and 23-month-old babies. When the water is looking particularly bad, Walker said, they won’t even bathe them “because you don’t feel like you’re getting clean if you’re in dirty water. We would rather clean them up with a baby wipe or something and wait till the next night, try again.”

If they leave a bowl, a cup, a baby’s bottle open-side-up in the dishwasher, it collects sediment and they have to wash it again. And because they’ve seen what the water does to clothes, Walker said, “We don’t have any white linens at all.”

Between October 2019 and 2020, Madison Parish had more boil water notices per person than any other parish. Such notices are issued whenever a drop in water pressure raises the likelihood of contamination. 

But what’s a boil water notice to Walker? Such an alert has “no bearing on anyone in my family,” he said. “You have to treat it as if there was a boil water notice already.”

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.

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