8 Investigates: The Ridgecrest Water Crisis
A village in crisis, because of life's most basic necessity.
"You wake up and have no desire to do anything because you can't get clean afterwards," homeowner Daniel Harris said.
Harris is an army veteran. In 16 years, he's served his country, traveled the world, got married, and had kids.
Then the diagnosis came - skin cancer. "All our plans just crashed at that point," Harris said.
Harris and his wife Tabitha moved to Ridgecrest, Louisiana, a small village in Concordia Parish where some of Tabitha's family and friends were living. What the Harris' hoped was a fresh start, only kicked off a whole new set of problems.
"I used the water out of the sink," Tabitha Harris said. "It was horrible. It was like slime."
Even more, the water is a threat to Daniel Harris' life. His cancer often leaves his skin burning regularly. He says the water only intensifies the pain. Sometimes, the pain is so bad they have to leave town and pay for a hotel room. They've also installed a filter on their showerhead.
Nothing works. "If I get a cut, and I get this water in me, it could kill me," Daniel Harris said.
The Harris' aren't the only ones fighting the battle against bad water.
Stan and Oana Crawford are trying to raise their family in Ridgecrest, despite a warning from the realtor.
"The real estate agent moving here, she said, 'you know, I highly advise against Ridgecrest. The water's horrible,'" Stan Crawford said.
To fix the problem, the Crawfords have tried rebuilding their house from the ground up, installing new pipes, and even installing water filters. None of that worked either. "It's brown," Oana Crawford said. "It's a dark brown like, like coffee."
They've invested thousands, but others can't afford that.
People like Debbie Varnado. She's so scared of the water; she won't even give it to her two dogs, spending more than $60 a month on bottled water, despite living on a fixed income. "I'm paying out of pocket about $65 a month for the water that we can't use," Varnado said.
Even Ridgecrest's mayor knows how big of an issue this is. "We got a water problem," Mayor Veller Ray Carroll said.
Carroll was the water plant's first manager back in the 1980s. Now, more than 30 years later, he's back at the helm trying to fix the problem.
"We've been trying to get it flushed out," Carroll said. "But still, we're still producing the same water right now."
And according to the Louisiana Department of Health, that water isn't good enough.
KNOE pored over dozens of documents and found LDH sent Ridgecrest a state order in 2017, stating there are too many trihalomethanes, TTHM's for short, in the village's water system. They're also known commonly as cancer-causing chemicals. LDH also sent Ridgecrest another letter in February of 2019, listing 17 violations with the water system, everything from the elevated tank to the distribution system. Because of it all, LDH hit the village with a $92,000 fine.
"Well, I wasn't here when that happened, but my name's on that fine," Carroll said. "How can I say somebody dropped the ball."
We took the problem to the state capitol and found out Ridgecrest's problems are part of a more significant statewide issue. According to State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry, there are 1,300 water systems in Louisiana, and more than half of them are 50 years old or older. Guidry says his team is trying to do a better job of monitoring things more closely. But it's a two-way street.
"When we find that a system is getting closer to failing, or they're losing a lot, we do monitor more often, more frequently," Guidry said. "So now, LDH is collecting samples of some of the water systems, but the water systems still have to collect their samples. We're not there every day. So we come in and check, you know, once a month. They need to be checking every day to make sure that the chlorine levels where needs to be. And so it takes them doing their job, and that's helping them do their job."
And Carroll says he's trying. He says Ridgecrest has three options to get the situation fixed. The first, build a new plant, which is a $3 million operation. "Okay, and we can't afford that," Carroll said.
The second, tie into the Concordia Water System, a plan Carroll says has recently been shut down. "But that's just only an emergency situation," Carroll said. "So they cannot furnish us with water permanently."
The third, and most likely, option is to tie into Ferriday's water system. According to the village's preliminary engineering report, that project will cost about $1 million, something the town will have to raise their water rates to afford unless they can secure some grant money.
And that's where the state is stepping in.
During the 2019 Legislative Session, Senator Francis Thompson authored SB170, a bill that created the Rural Water Infrastructure Committee, a 17-person team whose primary focus is finding local, state and federal funding to repair water systems like Ridgecrest.
Governor John Bel Edwards says this formal committee is making water a priority.
"There are rules attached to every single one of these funding sources," Edwards said. "But we're taking a different approach, a more holistic approach. And I think the more reasonable approach, one that is going to be more effective, I think, going forward."
Edwards also says these small systems may eventually have to do what Ridgecrest is trying to do - raise their rates, or consolidate.
"Where it makes sense to have small rural water systems to consolidate, we want to do that," Edwards said. "But we also want to make sure that the rural systems adopt best practices in terms of maintenance because what we see sometimes is they don't have the revenue streams in place to properly maintain a system, which puts it in crisis sooner than would otherwise be the case."
It all comes back to the families who live in Ridgecrest, the people who use this water every day, and the people who are crying out for help.