Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

The multibillion dollar question: What will it take to fix the South’s broken water systems?

A broken water pipe in New Orleans. Photo by Michael Homan/Flickr

The winter storm revealed the fragility of rural and urban water systems. President Biden’s new infrastructure plan could help improve them — but it’s only a start.

When a deep freeze blanketed the South in mid-February, running water was hard to come by in Tallulah, La. Pipes burst from the cold, and city officials turned off the water for stretches of time, trying to build up supply. A boil-water advisory lasted for weeks. “It kind of crippled the entire city,” said Toriano Wells, a Tallulah native. Municipal offices shut down. Everyday tasks like cooking and bathing became challenges. “It was really inconvenient for all the citizens,” Wells said.

This inconvenience is nothing new for Tallulah, a city of about 6,600 in Louisiana’s Delta region that is 80% Black and has a 44% poverty rate. Boil water advisories are common; many residents say their tap water often looks brown or milky, and they don’t feel safe drinking it under any circumstances. The city and its water system, Tallulah Water Service, are currently under two administrative orders from the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) to remediate drinking water violations, including broken equipment at its 70-year-old treatment plant and lack of adequate staffing capacity. LDH spokesperson Kevin Litten said in an email that the city has made “minimal progress” toward fixing the problems. It currently owes over $675,000, and accrues penalties daily for noncompliance.

“Our water system has been a dilapidated facility for many years,” said Antonio Wilson, a real estate developer who plans to run for mayor of Tallulah next year. “The storm just brought on a little bit more stress on the water service.”

Bottled water delivered by the Vessel Project in southwest Louisiana during the winter storm. Photo courtesy the Vessel Project

The winter storm revealed the fragility of the South’s drinking water infrastructure — especially in predominantly Black and low-income communities. Nearly 400 distinct water systems in Louisiana experienced boil water advisories related to the February winter weather, impacting more than 1.7 million people. In Shreveport, pipes ran dry for days. Two years ago, Black city officials put forth bond proposals to repair Shreveport’s aging water system, but voters struck them down in a narrow election. Thousands of residents in the majority Black city of Jackson, Miss., lacked running water for weeks after the February storm — a result of long-deferred maintenance on the city’s aging system due to entrenched racism in the capital city. Officials in Jackson asked the state legislature for $47 million for sewage and water repairs after the water crisis, and the state only earmarked $3 million.

Though the weather has warmed and the water is back on in the deep South, longstanding concerns about water quality and rising costs of drinking water service persist. In late March, President Joe Biden released his American Jobs Plan, a sweeping infrastructure proposal that promises to “upgrade and modernize America’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems, tackle new contaminants, and support clean water infrastructure across rural America” by dedicating billions of dollars in grants and loans to “states, Tribes, territories, and disadvantaged communities across the country,” the proposal reads. With additional funding proposed to eliminate lead pipes and monitor and remediate toxic chemicals like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, the plan dedicates $111 billion to rebuild the nation’s drinking water infrastructure. 

But those billions would be stretched thin: Many systems require millions of dollars for thorough repairs. Most Southern states need billions of dollars for water infrastructure repair over the next 20 years. Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba estimates that the city alone would need between $1-$2 billion to fully update its water system. 

Earlier this year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the country’s drinking water infrastructure a C- grade. The ASCE gave Louisiana a D- for drinking water in 2017, and Mississippi a D in 2020. Some of the nation’s oldest pipes were laid in the 19th century, according to the national ASCE report, and many are reaching the end of their lifespans. Aging systems mean leaks; leaks mean lost water — and money. The ASCE report states that drinking water systems lose at least 6 billion gallons of water — the equivalent of 9,091 Olympic-size swimming pools — every day. In 2019, the U.S. lost an estimated $7.6 billion through leaks. 

But federal funding for repairs has not kept pace with need. The limited grants offered are hardly enough to make a dent: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund doles out loans to local water systems via state governments, with a median loan of $1 million per project in 2018. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development programs provided $4.5 billion for approximately 2,000 drinking water projects between 2015 and 2019 for communities of 10,000 residents or fewer. 

Local governments often combine federal grants and still come up short. State and local governments have generally spent more on capital investments in water infrastructure than the federal government has in recent years. According to the ASCE report, “the federal government’s share of capital spending in the water sector fell from 63% in 1977 to 9% of total capital spending in 2017.”

Advocates in other states have been calling attention to this problem for years. Nina McCoy, founder of Martin County Concerned Citizens in Martin County, Ky., has advocated for clean, affordable drinking water for her community since a massive coal waste spill polluted rivers and streams in 2000. Now, the aging water system — which needs millions of dollars worth of repairs — is leaking most of its water before it reaches people’s faucets, and the water that does flow has high levels of certain contaminants. The state’s public utility commission is investigating the county’s water district for misspending money for upgrades in the 1990s. Federal agencies pledged more than $7 million in federal grants in 2019.

Stacks of water bills from Martin County, Ky., which warn of water contamination from carcinogenic chemicals. Photo by Lyndsey Gilpin.

The lack of accountability frustrates McCoy. “The scariest part is how much money gets wasted when you don’t put enough money to actually solve the problem,” she said. “You end up making the problem worse, and later having to use more money to go back and fix that problem.” 

She hopes that Biden’s infrastructure proposal will offer more than just temporary solutions. Too often, she said, communities “are left trying to figure out what to do with that damn Band-Aid.”

Often, investment in water systems is reactive rather than proactive, said Jacob Forrester, a representative from ASCE’s Mississippi section. “From a national perspective, from a state perspective, from a local perspective, all of those policy approaches should be a proactive capital investment every single year, prorated out at the life expectancy of the system,” he said.

This shortage of federal funding means the primary means of paying for drinking water infrastructure is through customer billing. Tallulah water bills, for instance, have gone up steadily in recent years, in order to cover “immediate and necessary construction and repairs,” according to city ordinances. In October 2020, Tallulah’s city council approved a $7.8 million water plant rehabilitation project to address issues outlined in a state administrative order, according to a city audit. The city recently applied for a USDA loan and grant to fund the plant project, but has not yet received word on the status of their application, said Yvonne Lewis, a city spokesperson. The audit says that the loan “will be repaid from mandatory water rate increases.”

The median household income in Tallulah was $26,351 between 2015 and 2019. “Tallulah does not generate a lot of money. You have citizens that basically are living paycheck to paycheck,” Wells said. “When you decide to raise the water rates up on individuals who are living on a fixed income, it puts them in a bind.” 

Wells said he only drinks bottled water. The most recent Consumer Confidence Report for Tallulah found arsenic and lead, though they weren’t above approved federal levels. Wells said he can afford to pay both his water bills and spend $60-70 on bottled water per month, but knows many of his neighbors can’t.

Before the city council voted on another water rate increase last month, Wells and Wilson — who were once high school classmates — circulated a petition opposing it. They gathered 1,200 signatures. Still, the council voted to raise base rates by $5 per month. 

A notice on Tallulah’s city government Facebook page.

Lewis said that when the city began doing outreach two years ago about water issues, she found that the majority of constituents understood the need for rate increases. “Everyone understands that, if we’re going to borrow this money, then it’s going to take Tallulah to pay for it,” she said. Lewis said Tallulah’s system meets water quality parameters set by the state. “We do, you know, have some people with discolored water,” she said. “We tell people they have to make their own decisions on how they use the water.” 

When asked if she drinks water from the tap, Lewis said she does not. She buys bottled water.   

Wells and Wilson are hopeful that funding from the Biden infrastructure proposal might ease some of the burden on Tallulah. The question is how much money will flow in — and how it will be managed. 

The effects of climate change are making comprehensive improvements more urgent. Increased rainfall and sea level rise could further jeopardize water infrastructure and spur boil water advisories, which are common in the South during hurricanes. Tom Allen, a professor of political science and geography at Old Dominion who has studied the links between water infrastructure, public health, and sea level rise, said that Biden’s plan needs to not only address overdue repairs, but also build more resilient infrastructure. However, building with these increasing risks in mind is expensive, and many rural communities in particular have even more strained budgets coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s possible that [the proposed federal funding] levels the playing field a little bit,” Allen said.

In late March, a Senate committee unanimously passed the Drinking Water and Infrastructure Act of 2021, a bill that in addition to reauthorizing certain grant programs, would increase funding levels for drinking water assistance in small communities and take initial steps to creating a water affordability program. But it — and the American Jobs Plan — are still just frameworks. Congress must sign them into law, and states will have to figure out how to disperse funds and ensure water districts use them appropriately. 

To Wilson, in Tallulah, federal money could be a lifeline for a small city that’s seen a steady outmigration over the last two decades. He thinks the lack of reliable drinking water was a major factor in many of his neighbors’ decisions to leave and seek jobs elsewhere. Repairing the water system should be of urgent concern for city officials, he said — it’s the only way to bring back those who left, bring new businesses, and to put the city on track for economic success. 

“In order to do anything, any kind of economic development,” he said, “you have to have good, clean drinking water.”

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.