ST. JOSEPH, La. — By Mardi Gras, a Louisiana town of 1,000 may have a huge reason to celebrate: drinkable tapwater, for the first time in more than a year.

New wells, pipes and other equipment have been installed in St. Joseph, and should be hooked up by Christmas, The Advocate reports . But testing to ensure that the water is lead-free could take another six or seven weeks.

If tests find lead is leaching from a building’s own pipes, the owner must replace them.

Even small amounts of lead can cause irreversible brain damage in children. Last December, elevated lead levels prompted Gov. Jon Bel Edwards to issue an emergency order against using the town’s water.

Grants and taxpayers footed $9.5 million bill to rebuild the water system.

But once it’s running, water rates will rise from $26.50 per month to $38.50 for the first 2,000 gallons.

Twelve dollars may not sound like much, but nearly 40 percent of the households in St. Joseph live below the poverty line, said the Rev. Israel Ross. The median household income in the Tensas Parish seat is $16,923 or about $1,400 a month.

“It’s going to be a sacrifice and many of them are going to need some help,” Ross said.

It can’t come from the town government.

“There’s isn’t a thing we can do for them,” said Mayor Elvadus Fields Jr. “Let me tell you why: The town is broke.”

The town’s money troubles caused the water problem, said David Greer, brought in by the state to administer St. Joseph and sort out its finances.

Sales taxes are dwindling, very little property taxes are collected and only some occupational license revenues are available, he said. The water and natural gas systems have, for a long time, been the largest source of revenues for the town. Monthly utility payments were routinely diverted to pay for street repairs, law enforcement and other activities, instead of maintaining the system.

Leaks occurred causing water pressure to go up and down, which in turn weakened the pipes and various repairs over the years, sometimes causing metals to flake.

Greer put an end to using utility payments to cover other expenses.

And now, he said, “The system must be maintained. The system must pay for itself and the people who use the services have to pay for the services.”

Fields is leading an effort to find grants and low interest loans that building owners can take out if lead levels remain high in their structures. He’s also trying to find funding for homeowners who need to replace sludge-filled water heaters but can’t afford it.


Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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