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)
With more than 500 applications submitted by Louisiana communities hoping to upgrade their failing water and sewer systems, lawmakers say there’s not enough money in the water sector program budget to fix everything.
The program was created by the Louisiana Legislature earlier this year to allocate $300 million in federal pandemic aid. Under the guidelines, eligible water systems can receive up to $5 million, with more funding potentially available for systems that consolidated. Applications were due at the beginning of November, though there were some complicating factors, including delays due to Hurricane Ida and some confusion over the application process.
The program ended up with 539 applications, exceeding $1.1 billion in requests according to Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who updated lawmakers during a legislative committee meeting on Nov. 19.
“You can imagine there’s not nearly enough money to go around for all the needs that exist across the state,” Dardenne told lawmakers.
With a second round of funding opening up in January, Dardenne expects more problems with the number of requests exceeding the budget, especially if funding is expanded to include drainage projects as well as water and sewer projects.
This does not come as a surprise– the $300 million the Legislature set aside for water system problems is just around 4% of the amount the White House says Louisiana requires to fix its water and sewer systems. President Joe Biden’s administration calculated that Louisiana would need $7 billion over the next 20 years to fix the longstanding problem of substandard water systems.
In 2017, the Louisiana Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the state’s drinking water a D-, and a Louisiana infrastructure report found that 58% of drinking water systems were built before 1960. 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.
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“People sometimes ask me what keeps you awake at night and I will tell you, it is our state’s water and sewer systems that keeps me awake at night because I do think that we have aging systems that have been neglected all around the state,” Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said during the meeting. “And this is going to become a very, very high priority I think for our state and I’m very thankful that we do have funding here and that we’re making it a priority now.”
To make sure that the systems with the most pressing issues get priority, the program implemented a three-part approval process.
The Louisiana Department of Health and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is scoring water and sewer systems respectively, sending the scored systems to the Office of Facility Planning and Control and the Office of Community Development-Local Government Assistance, which will decide what applications they want to recommend. The Water Sector Commission and the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget will then give the chosen projects final approval.
Dardenne said that this process was ahead of schedule, and that some recommendations would be ready for the next Water Sector Commission meeting on Nov. 30. While Dardenne acknowledged the limitations of this funding, he’s hopeful that more federal funding for infrastructure and COVID-19 aid would be coming.
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“There’s going to be obviously keen competition for a limited amount of money. The good news is we have more money,” Dardenne said.
Louisiana is set to receive $7.2 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden last week. While around $5.8 billion is earmarked for bridge and highway upgrades, some of the remaining balance is expected to go toward upgrading water and sewer infrastructure. Dardenne also mentioned the remaining $1.4 billion in federal COVID-19 aid that lawmakers will allocate next year, saying that some of this money could also be used for repairs.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever have enough money to satisfy every water demand that exists in Louisiana,” Dardenne said. “But we’re going to be able to make a good dent, I think beyond just this 300 million.”
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