At the Water Sector Commission meeting on Oct. 27, 2021, lawmakers debated system funding requirements. (Photo by Rachel Mipro/Louisiana Illuminator)
As the deadline for communities to apply for funding to fix their water and sewer systems approaches, lawmakers are still struggling to untangle the application process.
The program was created by the Louisiana Legislature earlier this year to distribute $300 million in federal pandemic aid. Eligible water systems can receive up to $5 million; potentially more for water systems that consolidate.
Hurricane Ida threw off the timeline for funding; the application deadline was extended from Sept. 24 to Nov. 1 to allow communities to focus on hurricane recovery. A second round of funding will open in January.
Sixty-six applications are fully submitted and ready for review, totaling around $170 million in requests. Around 227 applications have been started but not finished yet, with an estimated $305 million in requests. Four-hundred-and-fifty additional entities have requested access to the portal but haven’t started or submitted anything yet.
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The $300 million the Legislature has set aside is 4% of the amount the White House says Louisiana requires to fix its water and sewers’ systems.President Joe Biden’s administration calculates that Louisiana needs $7 billion over the next 20 years forits decrepit water systems. In 2017, the Louisiana Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the state’s drinking water a D-.
Around 20% out of the 1,287 water systems that the Louisiana Department of Health oversees are not up to code, The Illuminator reported in May, with close to 2,000 boil water notices issued in the state every year. A report on Louisiana infrastructure found that 58% of drinking water systems were built before 1960.
Many agree on the pressing need to fix water systems in the state–but the complex application process may slow down this round of crucial repairs.
System consolidation is seen as one solution to Louisiana’s increasingly worsening rural water supply. By consolidating two small rural water systems into one, the larger customer base would have more pooled money to make upgrades and repairs.
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But Water Sector Commission co-chair and state Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, R-Houma, said it was going to be difficult to get municipalities to consolidate systems. “Part of the problem is there’s almost a disincentive to get people to consolidate the way we have it right now because it’s difficult enough for one entity to try to develop an application,” Zeringue said. “If you try to get several municipalities working together, who’s going to pay for it? How are they going to do it? That’s a cluster.”
In order to complete an application, an engineer-provided cost estimate must be submitted.
State Rep. Jeremy LaCombe, D-Livonia, said he was getting calls from small towns who were struggling to find engineers, or just were confused about the application forms.
“I want to protect the rurals,” LaCombe said. “This whole entire program, all of this was done so that rural water districts and rural municipal districts along with others would be able to have an opportunity to reap this funding to get their old, antiquated, dilapidated systems upgraded and brought up to speed and now I’m starting to see what’s looking like a bureaucratic nightmare.”
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said he expected things to go more smoothly in the next application cycle.
“We’ll see if there’s some way we can get around this,” Dardenne said. “I don’t know if there will be, but if not as we’ve all said, the next batch we’ll be better prepared and people will know what they have to comply with going forward.”
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