More than 100 Louisiana water, sewer systems get funding for repairs

Lawmakers, governor allocate close to $300 million for local infrastructure projects

By: - January 27, 2022 3:19 pm
Water

Financial help is on the way for Louisiana drinking water and sewer systems with pressing needs. (Stock photo of low quality tap water from Shutterstock)

Financial help is on the way for Louisiana communities that frequently have to boil their drinking water to make it safe, and for places where aging sewer systems present a public health risk.

State lawmakers voted Tuesday to allocate $274 million to 87 community water and sewage systems around the state for upgrades and overhauls. The action comes after legislators agreed to distribute an initial $23 million to 29 water and sewer systems in early December.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration and legislators picked the projects to be funded from approximately 500 applications. Local systems must still execute a legal agreement with the state over the next two months to receive the money. 

The recipients were selected largely based on the severity of their need, but also on the long-term viability of their system and readiness to start construction. Local governments that could cover more of the cost of their projects were also more likely to receive money. 

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Systems willing to consolidate with each other moved up the priority list as well. Louisiana has several smaller water systems that struggle to pay for upkeep because their tax and fee base isn’t large enough to support operations. Lawmakers wanted to reward smaller entities willing to stabilize through combining operations. 

In all, $179.4 million was approved for water system upgrades and $94.7 million for sewer projects this week.

OPENING THE SPIGOT

These are some of the larger water and sewer projects being funded in Louisiana: 

  • St. Tammany Parish$15.7 million
  • Cameron Parish Water and Wastewater District No. 1$15 million
  • Livingston Parish Sewer District$15 million 
  • Henderson-Nina Water System (Lafayette Parish) – $10.3 million
  • Tensas Water Distribution Association – $10 million

Lawmakers decided last year to devote $300 million in federal funding for economic recovery to water and sewer system upgrades. They expect to do the same this year.

Edwards has proposed putting an additional $550 million toward water and sewer repairs in the next budget cycle. House Appropriations Chairman Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, said these projects are also a top priority for lawmakers.

Even if Louisiana puts an extra $850 million into water and sewer projects over the next two years, it won’t be enough money to fix all the failing systems across the state. Louisiana’s drinking water infrastructure is expected to need $7 billion worth of investment over the next 20 years. Annually, there are 1,600 to 1,700 boil water advisories in Louisiana

“There are simply too many projects and not enough dollars,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who oversees state government spending for Edwards. 

St. Tammany Parish alone had 200 boil water advisories unrelated to storms from October 2019 to October 2020, more than any other parish. As the Louisiana Illuminator previously reported, one boil water advisory in Cameron Parish lasted 280 days during the same time period.

Sen. Glen Womack, R-Harrisonburg, is worried some water and sewer systems that need the most help aren’t aware that the state has money to give out. Womack represents northeast Louisiana, Louisiana’s most impoverished region.

Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, also said some water and sewer systems won’t be able to put up the local funding required to receive one of the state awards.  

“What hurt them is they couldn’t make a 20% match,” Thompson said. “Those that need it the most, they don’t have the wherewithal.”

Some  systems who received money in this round were given a waiver if they couldn’t come up with the local share of the project funding, Dardenne said. State budget officials and lawmakers realize local funding could be out of reach, especially in rural areas.

Louisiana set up a Water Sector Commission run by legislators to oversee the distribution of funding for projects. Zeringue, who co-chairs the commission, said his group will look at tweaking criteria for receiving funds if needed. 

“We’re going to make some improvements,” he said.

 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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