In the last year, the small town of St. Joseph has made international headlines.
Its water system, more than 100 years old, had been rife with rust, leaks and discoloration for decades. But in December, a new problem arose: the water tested positive for lead, a contaminant that causes irreversible brain damage in children.
That’s when the state stepped in, allocating more than $9 million to replace the town’s water system. But it’s estimated the work won’t be complete until September. So how’s the city surviving in the meantime?
We heard the stories of three different people who give a glimpse of what it’s like living with contaminated water.
‘It ain’t easy at all’
Meet Ginger Grissom. Her mother opened a salon decades ago along Plank Road, St. Joseph’s main drag that leads to the Mississippi River levee. But since her mother passed away earlier this year, Grissom has been working to keep her legacy alive.
But one look at the salon’s sink, stained orange with layers of iron, and you’ll see why that’s become difficult. Grissom says she’s lost all her mother’s facial business, as her clients don’t feel comfortable getting pampered with the discolored water that has now been proven tainted with lead.
The morning before KATC visited Grissom, the salon’s water had been orange, she says. But on a good day, the water is cloudy – "but that to us is crystal clear."
One quick web search reveals what the water had been like in its worst days, with countless results showing brown, sometimes sludgy water, the photos coming from residents who have worked for the last year to bring government and media attention to the town’s water crisis.
The water can be so full of iron and manganese that when it saturated the salon’s water during a recent machine wash, it turned Grissom’s white towels beige and purple robes brown — a permanent discoloration that even bleach can’t remedy. To avoid such a mishap with a client’s hair, Grissom brings gallon jugs filled with water from a neighboring town’s system and uses it on her clients.
But for St. Joseph residents to receive water they would normally use from any functioning, quality tap, they rely on another system: drinkable water that’s trucked in and disbursed from camouflage-painted, military water-tank trailers placed throughout the town.
Known as "water buffaloes," the 14 tanks are emptied and refilled six days a week, which keeps the water from stagnation, and then it’s tested for adequate levels of chlorine to keep the water disinfected. With each buffalo holding 400 gallons of water, around 200,000 gallons of water has been transported to the rural Tensas Parish town over the last six months.
That’s equivalent to around 10,000, twenty-ounce water bottles – thousands of which have also been delivered to St. Joseph since the state detected lead throughout the town’s system and declared an emergency.
But before the water can be used, it must make one final journey: to the home.
Meet Betty Lee Roberts. To refill her water stores, she walks with a 5-gallon bucket to the nearest buffalo, fills it up and returns home. Her tap water isn’t safe for brushing her teeth or washing her food — and certainly not for drinking — and she’s a senior who cannot afford a car.
"It ain’t easy at all," Roberts says.
Although her grandchildren are sometimes around to help her, she still has to work to keep the young ones away from the construction, with miles of dug-up ditches exposing water and gas pipelines and muddied land.
"When I get back I’m too tired to do anything. I’m wore out," Roberts says.
A project bigger than the town budget
Residents say the conditions are tough to deal with. But Mayor Elvadus Fields Jr., 79 years old and in his first year in office, says St. Joseph is "fortunate."
"We are going through change with help," Fields says.
Town of St. Joseph water system reconstruction funding
That’s because St. Joseph received the financial aid it needed to replace its water system. But with more than $5 billion in water infrastructure needs throughout the state, it may not be the last to find itself in such a position.
Even with the aid, however, the town is far from flush with cash. The more than $9 million construction costs eclipse the town’s $7.6 million annual budget, and the town’s finances have been taken over by the state.
Finances and records had been in such disarray under St. Joseph’s previous, 16-year administration that it could not complete an audit for years, preventing the town from receiving grants that could have prevented the water crisis. The state appointment of a fiscal administrator to get things back on track.
Today, there’s not an existing map of where the town’s underground gas pipes are laid, which has added to the harms in St. Joseph. While KATC visited the town, we smelled three gas leaks at construction sites throughout the town.
Although the gas-line breaks are caused by the construction, it’s the town’s responsibility to repair the damage, Fields says. With only five town maintenance employees — only two of whom are trained to repair leaks in gas lines, according to fiscal administrator David Greer — the gas leaked into the air, unchecked and feet from occupied homes, for days.
If construction is completed in September, the next step for St. Joseph residents may be to replace water pipes in their individual homes. Residents will have to pay for those repairs themselves, but in the town — where nearly 40 percent of the less than 1,200 residents live below the poverty line — that may prove problematic.
How is your water quality?
Aging water infrastructure is a growing need in Louisiana, including in the Acadiana region. KATC Investigates researched Acadiana water system violations for the last seven years and compiled them into a database, which is organized by parish and water system. Options are available to search the violations by contaminant (for example chlorine, lead or e. coli). Check it out here.
Meanwhile, what does your water look like? Send us comments, photos and videos on Facebook or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to include which water system you use.