Westwego gets state OK on water treatment process

The city of Westwego received state approval this week to implement a unique water treatment process that could save the city millions of dollars and improve its ability to deliver potable water to residents.

Mayor John Shaddinger said the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals gave preliminary approval this week for Westwego to install a package water treatment plant to replace the city’s traditional water system. Westwego completed a pilot program testing out the new system late last year and had been waiting for the state to review the results for several months.

Shaddinger called the news a huge breakthrough for the city because it will allow Westwego to revolutionize its drinking water production, which has been plagued for years by state citations and rising costs. The city’s plant desperately needs repairs and modernization but cost estimates to reboot the current system have been between $10 million and $14 million.

Not only would the new system, which is designed by Veolia Water of North Carolina, allow Westwego to more than double its daily water production to 4 million gallons, but it should cost about $3 million to install.

“This is tremendous news for Westwego,” said Councilman Glenn Green, who traveled to inspect a similar plant with Councilman Ivy Rogers when the council first began considering the switch in 2010. “This is such a modern plant.”

Not only would the new plant be cheaper to build, it would be cheaper to operate, Shaddinger said. It requires less manpower and electricity than the current operations, and Westwego would be the first city in the state to use the method. Shaddinger relishes the idea of being a trendsetter and believes that other cities will soon be traveling to Westwego to get a glimpse of the operation.

“There’s nobody else in the whole state who’s been willing to do this,” Shaddinger said.

In order to move forward, Westwego must develop final plans for the plant and submit those to the state for final review. Another big challenge will be finding funding for the project, given Westwego’s dearth of available capital dollars. Westwego would need to secure a low-interest loan for the project or receive state capital outlay funding. Under the city’s agreement with Veolia, now that Westwego has state approval for the project, it must proceed, or risk a $30,000 penalty.

But Shaddinger said he’s confident the project will be funded. State Sen. John Alario and state Rep. Robert Billiot have promised to help Westwego secure funding, and the city could use some community development block grants it had tagged for other projects. Shaddinger said whatever it takes, the city is ready to get the plant finished.

“I believe that at the end of the day the funding will be in place to get this done,” Shaddinger said. “We are definitely moving forward with this.”

The package plant was the brainchild of Councilmen Ivy Rogers and Larry Warino, who heard about the new system at a convention for elected officials. Warino has been a frequent critic of the water plant, which he calls a serious drain on the city’s finances.

Warino said that in his eight years in office, he’s seen the annual subsidies the city provides the facility go from $300,000 to more than $700,000. It’s time to make a change, he said, and the package plant is a good option.

“It’s definitely a solution to the problem,” said Warino, although he noted that the city will still have to consider rate increases to eliminate the operating deficit. “We keep dumping money into the plant.”

Rogers said it will be good to stop receiving notices from the state about problems with Westwego’s water and spending money on projects that are only Band-Aids. Now that the city has a solution in place for the water treatment issues, he said, it can focus on moving forward with solutions to the persistent problems with water pressure south of the West Bank Expressway.

Shaddinger praised Rogers and Warino for their foresight in seeing a solution to the problem.

“This was not my idea, I’ll tell you straight up. … But I’m receptive to anyone’s ideas,” Shaddinger said, adding that it’s finally good to be nearing the end of the problem. “We didn’t do this overnight, it’s been a long process.