Ferriday residents forced to alternative water sources

Published 10:56 pm Saturday, May 23, 2009

It’s 8 a.m. and it’s time for 3-year-old Jalen Lewis to brush his teeth. But, after carefully squeezing the tube of toothpaste against the brush, he doesn’t reach for the tap.

Instead, he reaches for a bottle of water, the only option he has when brushing his teeth because of the indefinite boil-water notice in Ferriday.

“He’s gotten so attached to it, he will say ‘Where is my bottle of water?’” said his mother, Tamkea Lewis. “If you run the water from the sink, he’ll say, ‘I don’t drink that, it’s nasty.’”

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Even though Jalen professes that he doesn’t want to drink the water, a family member always watches to make sure he doesn’t fix himself a glass to chug.

“The only thing we use the water for is the bath and to wash clothes,” said Jalen’s aunt, Agnes Franklin. “We aren’t going to drink it, for sure.”

The boil-water notice was issued May 11, after department of health and hospitals officials observed that the roof of the town water treatment plant’s tank had collapsed.

The notice is indefinite, Mayor Glen McGlothin said, because the town doesn’t have the millions of dollars it will take to fix the plant, and even if it did the process would take months.

The town’s water problems go back years, and this isn’t the first time a boil-water notice has been issued.

In 1999, residents were placed under a 124-day boil notice after the water plant kept shutting down due to lack of maintenance and operator errors. That notice eventually resulted in a class-action lawsuit, which was settled for approximately $2.54 million.

Even though the case was settled and the water plant was put back online, Ferriday water customer Shirley Warner said hasn’t trusted the water since the late 1990s.

“You spend a lot of money buying water,” she said. “I dare to wash my face with (the town water).”

Steering clear of using the town water means that Warner has to buy all of her cooking and drinking water.

The entire process would be simplified if she could just use the tap when fixing meals for her bedridden 99-year-old grandmother, who lives with her, Warner said.

“Sometimes I take jugs and fill them up at my dad’s house in Vidalia,” Warner said.

“Sometimes I go to Walmart and come out of there with 9-10 gallons of water.”

After the boil-water notice was issued, the Louisiana National Guard hauled water buffalos — 500-gallon water storage tanks sometimes called Vietnam tanks — to 12 locations around town to distribute water to clean drinking water to those who need it.

Waiting to cross E.E. Wallace Boulevard — at this point, it is still U.S. 84 — Patricia Lucas clutches a gallon jug in one hand and eyes traffic warily.

“For elderly people to have to go through this, it’s dangerous,” Lucas said. “To have to have these (tanks) in our town, it’s sad. It’s embarrassing.”

The current boil-water notice is mandatory because of health code, and town water officials have said that the water has tested free of any dangerous bacteria, but recent weeks have been miserable, McGlothin said.

“People don’t understand, and there is a little hysteria,” he said. “They are thinking disease and bacteria and all kind of stuff, but the boil order is a precautionary measure.”

Even though it is a precaution, McGlothin said he hopes people are heeding the warning.

“I am hoping everybody is listening when I say don’t drink the water without boiling it,” he said.

All three times McGlothin has been elected mayor, in 1988, 2000 and 2008, he said he inherited a headache in the form of the water plant.

Even when the health department didn’t advise boiling water before consumption, residents said they had to let water run for a minute before it would run clear in the mornings.

Some days, the water had small bits of debris floating in it, Lucas said, and other days it just runs rust brown.

“If you have a surface water plant, it is 10 times harder to treat surface water than well water,” McGlothin said. “What our forefathers were thinking when they built this (plant), I don’t know.”

With the current boil notice, the mayor said he’s afraid the state could come in and take the plant over, fix it and then charge the town whatever it wants.

Following the 1999 shutdown, the town had to hire a private company to run the water plant for two years, to the tune of $72,000 a year.

A plan to fix the plant — a 20-year contract with Triton Company — has been talked about since early 2007, and in February the town signed the contract, but McGlothin said that the federal credit crunch was keeping Triton from getting front-end funding for the project.

Meanwhile, the mayor said he has been frantically seeking the $800,000 he needs to replace the deteriorated tank and bring the plant back online. He’s talking with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, two different banks, the town’s bond attorneys and any legislator who will listen.

“I have been on the phone at least five hours a day talking about water,” he said.

If the town can get the funding, McGlothin said the new tank can be installed in six weeks and the boil-water order lifted.

But getting the situation declared an emergency is an important step in getting funding.

“We are trying to get it done quickly,” McGlothin said. “When you get grants, you have got to go through a bunch of hoops six to eight months down the road, but this thing is in emergency mode now.”

The mayor has called a special meeting of the town council for Tuesday with three things on its agenda: the Triton Contract, the water plant emergency and water department employee matters.

And that’s all, he said.

“We don’t need to add a bunch of stuff to the agenda,” McGlothin said. “We are going to discuss water.”

The meeting will be 6 p.m. at town hall.