Editorial Roundup: Louisiana

The Advocate. January 18, 2023.

Editorial: Louisiana has tough challenge in infrastructure in rural areas

The old saw is still true, in the century-old world of Louisiana’s oil and gas economy and in the new world of internet and broadband: Your population is your economy.

When the people don’t live somewhere, they’re not buying things and not paying taxes. And that relates to one of Louisiana’s big problems, failing services in rural areas where drinking water — the most basic of human services — is threatened by the economics of public finance.

A rural area with a declining population provides drinking water to its residents, but that gets tougher when the number of users goes down and their monthly checks no longer arrive.

More than 60 of the Louisiana water systems that were canvassed by the Department of Health got F grades on their community water systems. That’s fewer than 10% of the systems studied, so it’s actually good news, relatively speaking.

And most of the populous areas did pretty well, with New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Shreveport each receiving at least a C in the study.

Jefferson Parish’s West Bank water system, which serves about 160,000 customers, received a D. It was the largest system to receive a failing grade. Water Department Director Sidney Bazley blamed most of the problems cited in the system’s grade sheet on Hurricane Ida.

“We had a lot of damage in Grand Isle”′ Bazley said, adding that the island was under a “do not drink” order for months after the storm, and water quality violations stemmed from that period. The system was also penalized after an inspection noted a leak at a water tower in Harvey, something Bazley said was already being fixed.

With resources, larger urban systems — even the West Bank agency when it reaches down into small coastal communities — can cope with most circumstances, even very difficult ones like hurricanes.

But legislators and others see obvious long-term problems elsewhere. Particularly in the Mississippi and Red River deltas, among the poorest parishes in the state, population in small-town Louisiana is going down. That means that when it comes to LDH’s letter grades, financial capacity to run the systems and invest through long-term borrowing in replacing decades-old pipes just won’t be there.

The Legislature is allocating $450 million in the federal infrastructure spending coming to Louisiana for water systems.

Blake Fogelman, an engineer with the health department, told lawmakers last year that the state’s water systems need around $7 billion in upgrades over the next 20 years.

That’s an immense tab anywhere but it is particularly daunting in small-town Louisiana. And everywhere, it’s politically difficult to raise the cost of water bills to pay for maintenance and upgrades.

The alternative? We’ve seen massive state emergency response needed in St. Joseph in the Mississippi Delta parish of Tensas. That’s a very small town where the population has declined precipitately from the days when farming provided far more jobs than it does today.

But Opelousas in St. Landry Parish is not such a tiny place, and this newspaper reported on many complaints about the quality of the water supply in that F-rated system.

While the poor grades might not mean that the water is unsafe to drink — although Opelousas residents reasonably think that the brown color out of their taps isn’t very encouraging — small-town Louisiana is facing a real challenge in that bureaucratic word: infrastructure.