ST. JOSEPH - Residents in St. Joseph, Louisiana are not surprised their town has the worst drinking water in the state. The rural system has levels of lead equal to Flint, Michigan, but it's not the reason people don't drink the water.
No one has quenched their thirst from their own kitchen sink in decades according to life long resident James Skinner.
"You can't bath in it, you can't wash your clothes in it, you can't wash dishes in it," Skinner said.
The Northeast Louisiana system has produced brown water for years, safe to drink but devastating to customer confidence. High school teacher Sarah Mitchell said St. Joseph is known throughout Tensas Parish as the "dirty water town."
"It's a surprise there are places in our country you can't drink the water," Mitchell said.
The independent system serves about 400 customers. Over the decades, it had been losing most of its water through leaks in the infrastructure. More chemicals were injected to adjust, still safe for drinking but corrosive to old plumbing in people's homes. Little was done to fix the leaky pipes until things got so bad that the corrosive water began leaching lead from residents plumbing last year.
What happened in St. Joseph serves as warning to other water systems in the state, particularly independent and rural systems.
"There are 60 percent of water systems in Louisiana that are between 30 to 50 years old, they're aging," said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana's Health Officer. "If we don't focus on maintaining and replacing them, then we will have another St. Joseph."
Water systems are meant to be self-sufficient, charging customers enough to pay for repairs. However, the state stepped in the pay for St. Joseph's new system because otherwise it would have cost customers $20,000 each.
Those are repairs that may have never come had the lead not appeared. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Louisiana a grade of D+ for its water infrastructure as a whole, meaning systems are "poor or crumbling."
Guidry recommends small systems consolidate to spread the cost.
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