Local leaders pull together to secure state funding for badly needed infrastructure upgrades in Tallulah, Louisiana.
The Louisiana city of Tallulah prospered for many years, until the 1970s, when a large lumber mill closed down and the newly built Interstate 20 diverted east-west traffic around the community.
As the local economy declined and the tax base dried up, critical infrastructure — water, wastewater and streets — fell into neglect. Failing lift stations led to flooding and sewer backups during rain events. The wastewater treatment facility frequently exceeded effluent permit limits. The drinking water treatment plant slowly deteriorated, requiring frequent repairs, and a breakdown in early 2014 left the community without water for 26 hours.
Today, Tallulah’s water infrastructure is well positioned for the future. An upgraded wastewater treatment facility went online early this year, and plans and funding are in place for a new drinking water system to be commissioned in 2019.
It’s all paid for, to the tune of nearly $23.5 million, through the state’s Capital Outlay Fund for infrastructure, and without the customary 25 percent local match. “The matching funds were a major issue,” says Mayor Paxton Branch. “As a small rural community with a low tax base, we couldn’t afford it.” A persistent lobbying initiative involving the mayor’s office, operations personnel, city council members and citizens persuaded the state Legislature to waive the local match requirement.
Branch made water infrastructure improvements the cornerstone of his 2015 campaign for mayor. From the time he assumed the office, it took 14 months to arrange the funding — $1.5 million for wastewater improvements and $22 million for the new water system.
“The $1.5 million grant for the wastewater plant improvements was awarded under the previous administration,” Branch says. “However, it had been sitting idle for years. Once I knew that it was there, I took a look at the engineers’ plans. They assured me the plans would work, and we recommitted the money toward the wastewater plant upgrades.”
For Carlton Whitaker, chief water and wastewater operator, it was a major relief. “I’ve been through a lot of mayors as an operator for Tallulah in different capacities,” he says. “I’d been preaching for years that we had to do something and do it quick. Mayor Branch took the bull by the horns and went out there and made this thing happen. He got on the end of the rope with me and we all pulled together.”
First in line was $400,000 in improvements for the lift stations. Four of the city’s eight stations received a total of four new 50 hp Gorman-Rupp pumps. The main lift station, which delivers influent to the treatment headworks, received an 8-inch, 75 hp Gorman-Rupp submersible sewage pump rated at 3,600 gpm, as well as a new 50 kW diesel emergency generator to keep the pumps operating through power outages.
Next up was a $1.25 million wastewater treatment upgrade. The existing facility included a facultative pond for primary treatment, followed by overland flow across 260 terraced acres. However, that system experienced effluent problems and wasn’t meeting permits.
The new 2.5 mgd design replaces the overland flow phase with aeration in the existing pond, followed by a secondary clarifier.
The water side
Plans for water system improvements include new drinking water wells, a new transmission pipeline and a new water service facility.
The project, fully state-funded, will replace an antiquated treatment plant and provide much higher-quality source water that will require a far less complex and chemical-intensive treatment process, according to Whitaker.
The Upper Mississippi Alluvial Aquifer from which the city now draws source water is naturally high in arsenic and barium (both above U.S. EPA maximum concentration limits) and in iron and manganese, says Whitaker. The new plan is to tap the Cockfield Aquifer, about 30 miles from the city.
“We expect to draw more pristine water that doesn’t have the constituents our source water has now,” Whitaker says. “We have high hopes of getting water that will require only disinfection and possibly light filtering. We also hope to sell water to other smaller communities along the route of the trunk line to Tallulah.”
The new water service facility will replace a 66-year-old plant that uses enhanced lime treatment followed by mixed-media filtration. That plant is showing impacts of aging that include metal corrosion, metal fatigue and leakage. Replacement parts are hard to find. In addition, lime floc carryover from the settling process leads to frequent blinding of the filters and excessive backwashing.
The new facility will double current capacity to 3 mgd and is expected to meet the city’s needs for 20 years. The water system project is to be completed in three years.
Securing funding for the improvements wasn’t easy. The state budget was deep in deficit, and the Legislature tended to focus on major problems facing much larger cities, Branch says.
In addition, matching fund waivers were rare.
Whitaker and Branch, both with strong local ties, approached the challenge with conviction. Branch, a native of Madison Parish (of which Tallulah is the seat of government) had been parish president for eight years while working as a district manager with Holiday Inn Worldwide. “I understood how government works, and as a businessman I also understood cash flow and the importance of planning, setting timelines and sticking to them,” he says.
Branch came into the mayor’s office while the city faced administrative orders from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to improve the wastewater treatment process.
“The system wasn’t going to get any better,” he says. “It was only going to get worse. That became my priority, because water is the common denominator for this entire community.”
Whitaker, a Tallulah native, has been with the city as an employee or contract operator for the past 31 years, except for three years working with a U.S. government contractor during the Iraq War, coming home in 2010. He holds Class IV (highest) licenses in water production, treatment and distribution and in wastewater treatment. He is also a member of American Water Works Association and the National and Louisiana Rural Water associations.
Lobbying for the fund-matching waiver meant extensive preparation, followed by heavy activity during a 45-day legislative cycle. The initiative reached directly to the grass roots. City officials held community meetings, engaged the news media and circulated petitions supporting the waiver. Residents and officials wrote letters to legislators describing their experiences with water and wastewater system failures.
“Everything was about the timeline,” says Branch. “Our city council was very supportive. They were not hesitant. They helped us in getting the community involved, securing the letters of support that we needed. All members did what they needed to do within their districts.”
One key step was a meeting with the LDEQ. Says Whitaker, “We took an entourage including myself, the mayor and our engineering consultants. We explained all the problems we’d been having and showed them our plan of action.”
The result was that the LDEQ gave the city a letter of endorsement to be used with legislators. Branch recalls, “That and the many other letters of support we received really got us over the top. We had written documentation that we were facing a health issue.”
City officials lobbied legislators throughout the floor session. “We were there every other day, making sure our voices were heard,” Branch says. “That was the biggest thing — just being there and letting them know how serious our problems were.” The local legislative delegation of Sen. Francis Thompson and Reps. Andy Anderson and Charles “Bubba” Chaney strongly advocated for the city.
“Evidently it worked, because when it came time for the vote, the measure passed unanimously and the waiver was given,” Branch says. “Many people were amazed that a town our size was able to procure such a magnitude of funding. It was hard work. We understood process and followed it all the way through to the very end.”
Lessons for others
Whitaker and Branch agree that their experience can serve as an example to other communities struggling to fund large and essential water infrastructure projects.
“What I would tell anyone is that you have to be able to analyze and prioritize,” says Branch. “That is the key. Once you get your plan, stick to it, no matter what. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself wavering. Take the time out to plan and research and know what you need to do.”
As an elected official, he saw the importance of acting early in his four-year term: “You may not be fortunate enough to win another term. Then someone comes in and has brand-new ideas, and your hard work just goes out the window.”
Whitaker, meanwhile, learned persistence: “My perspective is never to give up on a plan, even if it looks 20 years into the future. If you have a plan, stick to it. Be consistent. Be consistent with the press. Be consistent in everything you do in the water business. If you do, eventually you will reap the benefits.”