John Harper / Houma Courier
NEW ORLEANS -- After a brain-eating amoeba killed a 4-year-old St. Bernard Parish boy in September, the state Department of Health and Human Services issued an emergency rule that has local water boards working full tilt.
Mary Trahan’s computer screen at the Consolidated Waterworks District No. 1 building in Houma lights up like a Christmas tree. Red, green, purple and blue lights illuminate valves and points along parishes water lines, and allows Trahan, the information systems supervisor, to monitor all activity on the line.
Those lights, which illustrate the fifth-largest public waterworks system in the state, are about to get a lot brighter.
The emergency rule sent down Nov. 6 dictates that all state water supplies must maintain chlorine concentrations of 0.5 milligrams per million gallons of water, up from previous levels of 0.2 per million. The rule also requires that water districts increase the number of sampling sites, or places where water is extracted and tested, by 25 percent.
“We want real results to insure that the water is safe,” said Michael Sobert, general manager of Consolidated Waterworks District No. 1. “The means we have to get off the beaten path, get to the end of the subdivision where the water main ends and builds up water. That’s where we might find bad water.”
The numbers the state is using in its emergency rule are based on an amoeba epidemic that occurred in Australia during the 1970s and 1980s and killed dozens of people. By raising the chlorine levels to 0.5 parts per million, Australia ended the deaths caused by the amoeba, also known as Naegleria fowleri.
Making the necessary adjustments to meet the new requirements provides unique challenges that must be met in less than three months.
The portal to file compliance plans opened Dec. 9. Waterworks officials submitted the local plan for approval on Friday.
If all goes well, that gives Sobert and his crews roughly 50 days to meet a Feb. 20 deadline.
Time works against the local waterworks district in a number of ways. It takes time — as much as five days — for water to travel from the parish’s water plant in Schriever to the southern most end of main lines in places like Cocodrie and Dulac.
During that slow plod, chlorine levels dissipate slowly, meaning that if chlorine levels are testing as high as 1 or 2 parts in Schriever or Gray, they may not be meeting the state mandated 0.5 standards by the time the water makes it down the bayou.
Sobert says the chlorine in the pipe, which is actually combined with ammonia to produce a substance known as chloramine, is well within safe levels for human consumption. The ammonia is added to help increase the lifespan of the chlorine and to eliminate harmful residue from the breakdown of dead bacteria.
It’s a tricky balancing act to maintain sufficient chlorine downstream while not overwhelming people with swimming pool smelling chlorine-laced water. Doing so requires more modifications, including down-stream chlorination stations.
Places such as hospitals, aquariums and ice companies, where excess chlorine can cause problems, have to be notified ahead of time if Sobert plans to increase levels. Hair salons face difficulties, too, as chlorine can react with hair products and shorten the life of hair dyes.
“This is not an easy problem,” Sobert said. “I would think we’re going to spend about a million dollars on this.”
The total waterworks budget for 2013 was about $16 million, Sobert said.
Whatever the cost, Sobert said failure is not an option. All three of waterworks’ construction crew will work three shifts per day installing sampling points and monitoring progress as the chlorine levels rise.
In the meantime, other necessary projects such as installation of a new “master corridor” needed to streamline water from the Schriever plant to Houma, are taking a back seat.
“This is a top priority, water quality always comes first,” Sobert said. “The pressure is on.”