New water sources sought

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 17, 2003


LAPLACE – According to a recent report on St. John the Baptist Parish’s water supply and distribution system, additional water capacity could be a necessity in LaPlace and in the Reserve/Garyville area in less than 10 years. Continued use of old water wells can cause the wells to collapse.

While there is no current shortage, Parish Councilman Steve Lee said, it is time for the council and administration officials to begin looking for new permanent water sources.

“We could drop more water wells farther out – but that is where salt water encroachment becomes a problem,” Lee said.

Saltwater encroachment occurs (in coastal areas) when saltwater moves into the aquifer, replacing or intruding on fresh water. It is often the result of over-pumping the aquifer.

According to the study, saltwater encroachment has been documented around the Ruddock wells. The wells are located near the freshwater-saltwater interface (encroachment line), a line that is progressively moving north as water is drawn from the aquifer. At the freshwater-saltwater interface chloride concentrations are too high for water to be used for public consumption.

“The problem is not a new problem,” Lee said. “It is just getting to the point where we have to address it. Clearly, a permanent solution, the best option for us, is to use the facilities we have now and build a new facility that uses (Mississippi) river water.”

It is one of a number of options officials are considering.

“What it boils down to is that the capacity of the LaPlace system is only 6 million gallons,” said Henry DiFranco, director of Public Works and Utilities. “If the maximum demand is 5.8 million gallons per day (MGD) during peak times (such as summer), we are only supplying what the demand is.”

The Lions Water Plant supplies water to Reserve and Garyville. That plant has the capacity to treat 3 million gallons per day. However, the maximum demand in the Reserve/Garyville area is already at 2.6 million gallons per day.

“Do you go further north (of the freshwater-saltwater interface) to put additional wells in?” DiFranco said. “Costs increase dramatically when you consider going further.”

Quality also suffers, he said.

“Most well systems don’t go through a system that removes organic matter,” DiFranco said. “The organic matter reacts with the chlorine and forms the THMs.”

In January 2002, the EPA lowered the level of trihalomethanes (THMs) allowable in drinking water to 80 parts per billion. Trihalomethanes are produced when disinfectants added to water react with natural organic and inorganic materials present in drinking water. Scientists believe THMs can cause cancer and other health problems with long-term exposure.

Calculations on water samples found St. John Parish in violation of these standards during the third quarter of 2002. However, parish officials said short term exposure to the chemicals is not harmful.

“The problem with the Ruddock system is that you have the distance factor,” DiFranco said. “It (chlorine) has time to react with organic matter while pumping it into town.”

Moving north, he said, would increase the distance the water would have to travel. Using a well system, rather than Lake Maurepas (which has also been noted as a possibility), the result could be a greater opportunity for the production of THMs.

While the debate about how to increase water capacity continues, the parish has been working on innovative ways to reduce the amount of THMs in the current supply and distribution system to the new mandatory levels.

Under a new plan, the parish could reduce the amount of chlorine that is injected during the initial water distribution process. DiFranco said he would also move one of the injection sites further along in the water’s progression to lower the amount of time chlorine has to interact with materials in the water.

“If the levels are not reduced enough,” he said, “then we will try a different chemical, chlorine dioxide. It probably would increase our operating budget $8,000 to $9,000.”

That could signal big changes in the parish’s operating budget. It could also mean an increase in rates for water customers.

“I think it is a combination of user fees and bond money that would accomplish a palatable solution that voters and residents would accept,” Councilman-at-large Duaine Duffy said. “Federal matching dollars could also be available.”

In 2002, the parish put the infrastructure into place to change where and when chlorine is injected into the system. According to DiFranco, the parish is waiting on consultants to finalize their analysis of the system before beginning a pilot test.

A $5.5 million bond issue was used to upgrade the current water supply and distribution system, including building an additional storage tank in Ruddock and refurbishing tanks at all the sites.

In addition, a pump and motor were replaced at Ruddock to increase the life span of the wells.

While most council members agree the parish needs to start as early as this year to develop a plan for a new water plant, some members believe it is also time to implement some short-term fixes for problems plaguing the parish’s water supply and distribution system.

These short-terms solutions could provide residents with water even when there are problems with one of the water lines. In addition, they would continue to ensure the parish’s drinking water is safe.

“A water plant is a big project and is way down the road,” Boucvalt said. “What we need to do is find out what we can do to meet limits today.”

Those changes, he said, start with finding the funding for water supply and distribution system projects and potentially increasing storage (elevated tanks, etc.) and chemical control mechanisms.

The URS Corporation, in its October assessment of the parish’s water systems, proposed a number of alternatives ranging from phasing out certain parish water plants to the construction of a new plant.

The company’s recommendation for the East Bank water supply and distribution system – continue using the Ruddock wells, phase out the use of the Lions Water Plant, add a new water treatment plant (operating at more than 6 million gallons per day), add elevated storage tanks and more.

The engineering firm also recommended adding elevated storage tanks for the West Bank.

While parish officials still have time to consider alternatives, some council members said some initial planning must begin this year and they are already talking with parish bond attorneys, researching possible funding for the projects.

Supporting Lee’s assertion that utilization of the Mississippi River could unlock the answers to the parish’s water crisis, DiFranco said, “We have a source of water close to us. It only makes sense that we need to utilize it as a resource.”

A new water plant is probably still a few years away, officials said.

However, financial planning for the new facility and initial designs could come as early as this year, parish officials said.

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series which looks into the future of the St. John the Baptist Parish water system.