In the past year, the increased focus on lead as the Flint, Mich., water contamination crisis unfolded has brought attention to other communities across the country where water supplies are affected by the heavy metal.
One such community is St. Joseph, La., a town of about 1,100 people located near the Mississippi River. In December 2016, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency in the town after lead was found in the water in three buildings. Further testing revealed that 22% of homes in the town had unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water. The state is providing bottled water to residents until the water system can be brought into compliance.
Unfortunately, water contamination concerns are not new for residents of St. Joseph. According to state Health Officer Jimmy Guidry, many residents already use bottled water, because too often the water that poured from their taps was “brown and smelly.”
“It’s just a given fact that at some point during the week, you’re going to have brown or yellow water,” resident Garrett Boyte said in an NPR report in February 2016. Local officials said the discoloration was most likely the result of a broken pipe.
Although the broken pipe and discolored water were indication enough that St. Joseph’s aging distribution system is in desperate need of repair, it was the high lead levels that spurred the city into action. Work is now underway to repair the distribution system, but such work can put a major strain on towns like St. Joseph, as coming up with money for repairs can be difficult for a water system with such a small customer base.
“It’s the kind of thing, which, if you don’t maintain it along the way, you’re going to have to take care of it when it gets in trouble, and now it’s in serious trouble,” Guidry told NPR. “And it’s going to be very costly to take care of those issues.”
St. Joseph is not alone in its struggles—according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 97% of the nation’s public water systems are small systems serving 10,000 or fewer people. Many face similar challenges when it comes to funding for system upkeep and meeting drinking water regulations.
Final barrier treatment seems like it could be an ideal solution for some communities, especially very small systems that may serve only a few dozen connections. However, utilizing final barrier methods to bring drinking water into compliance with statutes often hits regulatory roadblocks. Consumers often are wary as well—in Flint, where point-of-use filters have been distributed to remove lead from drinking water, some residents continue to instead rely on bottled water. Final barrier treatment has the potential to help many communities and families across the country, but more education, both of legislators and the public, will be needed to advance acceptance.