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Louisiana towns in need of clean water infrastructure wait longer as $300M gets delayed

WaterTower_031121
Tegan Wendland
/
WWNO
The remains of a water tower in Holly Beach, Louisiana, that was destroyed by Hurricane Laura in 2020.

Louisiana’s deteriorating water infrastructure needs immediate upgrades, but months after devoting $300 million in federal aid to the problem only a fraction has been guaranteed to local projects.

The Louisiana Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee approved funding for 29 water and sewer system upgrades with a total cost of $23 million dollars Wednesday morning, while hundreds of local governments are still waiting to see if they will get a piece of the $300 million in federal aid the legislature set aside to rehabilitate the state’s crumbling water infrastructure.

State lawmakers overseeing the process said Wednesday’s allocation was just a start.

“We wanted to get started moving on these critical projects that are important to provide clean water for many of the communities in the state,” said Rep. Jerome Zeringue (R-Houma), co-chairman of the Water Sector Commission, which recommended the projects receive funding.

Improving the state’s aging water infrastructure has emerged as a top legislative priority in the last year, and has even drawn the attention of the federal government.

In April, the Biden administration, drawing upon a 2017 study conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers, estimated that Louisiana’s drinking water infrastructure would need $7.3 billion for maintenance and improvements over the next 20 years. Biden himself toured a struggling water treatment plant in New Orleans while stumping for his infrastructure plan.

A joint investigation by WWNO/WRKF and the Louisiana Illuminator published in May revealed that approximately 20% of the water systems monitored by the Louisiana Department of Health are not up to code. The health department estimates that it issues between 1,600 and 1,700 boil water advisories each year, leaving residents of rural and low-income communities to wash dishes and bathe their children in the brown water that comes out of their tap.

Louisiana lawmakers, awash with federal coronavirus relief dollars, decided to set aside $300 million from the state’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act for improvements to the state’s aging water and sewer systems. Lawmakers made the appropriation with the understanding that local governments’ needs would far exceed the amount of money available.

They were right. Local governments sought funding for more than 600 water infrastructure improvement projects. The 539 projects that met eligibility requirements have a total price tag of more than $1.1 billion. Under the rules of the program, each project could receive up to $5 million.

Local governments were invited to submit their applications for funding through an online portal set up by the state’s Division of Administration. The agency then scored the applications on a variety of criteria and submitted its prioritized list of projects to the newly created Water Sector Commission, which is tasked with making formal recommendations to the state’s Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. Lawmakers will then approve or reject those projects and disburse the funds.

So far, there have been delays at each step of the process. The Division of Administration took several months to finalize the application process and local governments only learned the requirements days before the online portal launched on Aug. 1. Then the original Sept. 24 deadline for applications was pushed back to Nov. 1 after Hurricane Ida swept through the state.

Now, as representatives from Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Division of Administration sift through hundreds of local governments’ requests for funding, state lawmakers on the Water Sector Commission continue to raise questions about how the administration will recommend which projects receive funding first.Rep. Jerome Zeringue (R-Houma) , chairman of the commission, asked officials from the Division of Administration to explain how it scored each of the roughly 500 eligible projects that applied.

Not surprisingly, these requests further delayed a process that got off to a slow start.

“I know it sounds like a lot, but I think it’s going to be incumbent upon the commissioners to be informed as best we can about the scores and what those scores reflect,” Zeringue said Tuesday.

Once the full report is available, Water Sector Commission members will consider the division’s recommendations Jan. 10 and pass them along to the joint budget committee for consideration Jan. 25.

The roughly two dozen projects that the commission cleared Tuesday and ultimately secured funding Wednesday had already been vetted by state lawmakers and included in the state’s capital outlay budget earlier this year. But many of those projects were labeled as low-priority in the wide-ranging state construction budget and were unlikely to receive full funding through that process.

Mark Moses of the Division of Administration said that shifting the projects to the new program would allow applicants to address more of their water system’s needs in one fell swoop.

“I think they know that in capital outlay it’s a pretty heavy lift to ask for $5 million, $6 million, $8 million to do everything, so they do it piecemeal,” Moses said Tuesday. “We wanted to know what their entire needs were.”

Still, some lawmakers were critical of the creeping price tags of the projects that were ultimately fast tracked. Sen. Bret Allain (R-Franklin) requested that Moses and others in the administration look for opportunities to pare down the projects to further stretch the available funds.

“I think with some of these projects they said, ‘There’s free money available, let’s throw in every need we’ve got for the next 20 years,” Allain said Tuesday. “It’s not realistic. It may be shorting another project… This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and we need to make the best of it.”

Sen. Mike Reese (R-Leesville), co-chair of the Water Sector Commission, urged lawmakers not to worry if projects in their districts were overlooked in this round of funding.

“This is only utilizing about 8% of the funds,” Reese said. “We’re preserving about 92.5% for the funds for the scored applications that we will start evaluating in January.”

More money may be on the way soon. Louisiana ended the previous fiscal year with a $1 billion budget surplus, and state law only allows that money to be used in a handful of ways. Funding state infrastructure projects is one of them.

And the bipartisan infrastructure deal Biden signed into law last month includes $55 billion for drinking water infrastructure improvements across the country. It’s unclear how much of that money will be directed to Louisiana, and when it might arrive.

When it does, it is likely to flow through the process lawmakers set up this year.