President Joe Biden tours the Carrollton Water Treatment Plant in New Orleans, alongside Mayor LaToya Cantrell on May 6, 2021. (Photo by Bobbi-Jeanne Misick)
BATON ROUGE – Even though Louisiana communities with water problems are expected to apply for a share of $300 million in federal pandemic aid at the beginning of August, at a Thursday meeting of the state’s newly formed Water Sector Commission meeting, the only thing state lawmakers decided was to meet again next week.
“We’ve had a lot of discussion, and I know this only might be the second meeting, but we’re eight days off,” Sen. Glen Womack (R-Harrisonburg) said. “We need something tangible. We need something to start checking some boxes ourselves as a committee and start working, put pencil to paper.”
The 10-person commission, which Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue (R-Houma) and Sen Mike Reese (R-Leesville), co-chair met for the first time last month after the Legislature created it in the 2021 Regular Legislative Session. The commission is expected to make recommendations to the Joint Legislative Committee on how to parcel out $300 million in federal pandemic aid to local governments whose water systems need upgrading.
For a story published in May, The Louisiana 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. There are 1,600 to 1,700 boil water notices per year across the state.
President Joseph Biden’s administration announced an infrastructure plan in March that includes $111 billion for improving drinking-water infrastructure nationwide. But Louisiana’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 the same day Biden flew to New Orleans to tour a water plant. In 2017, the Louisiana Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state’s drinking water a grade of D-.
A portal will be opened Aug. 1 for communities to submit their applications for funding from the Water Sector Commission. Commission members will then use a scoring system on the applications to determine funding eligibility. But the scoring system, administrative costs and the application itself have yet to be finalized.
While there’s a general overview of what the application process will include such as a narrative, a financial outline of the systems and estimates of system sustainability, nothing has been formalized. Stormwater drainage projects are not expected to be included in the accepted proposals, as there is funding already allocated for drainage.
Members of the commission expressed some frustration at the lack of progress.
“Lot of good ideas I’m hearing here,” Womack said, “lot of good from the administration, from the health department. Lot of rural water talk but I would strongly encourage us to get something in our hands.”
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