Since 2014, Paxton J. Branch has been the mayor of Tallulah, La., located in the northeastern part of the state just across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg, Miss.
It was once a booming town, but the introduction of Interstate 20 quickly pulled traffic from US Highway 80, a major thoroughfare through the city. Th at and the closing of a large mill contributed to its downward spiral. In January, USA Today named Madison Parish, where Tallulah is located, the poorest parish in Louisiana.
However, Tallulah is still in a position to offer rail, river and interstate transportation. But Mayor Branch believed, from an economic development standpoint, that it’d be hard to market a city with aging infrastructure. He became determined to address an aging wastewater treatment plant and a failing water plant.
The previous administration had been awarded a $1 million Environmental Protection Agency emergency grant for upgrades to its wastewater treatment plant after an inspection determined the city couldn’t do the needed improvements by itself. After the award, the previous mayor then decided he wanted to build a new wastewater treatment plant, so the grant award sat unused for over three years while he tried to secure $4.7 million in additional funding for the new plant. The plan was to use the $1 million for a matching federal grant toward the $4.7 million, but federal money can’t be used to match federal money. In the interim, the mayor became ill and passed away.
Upon Mayor Branch’s election, he sat down and reviewed the city’s financial situation and discovered the $1 million EPA grant. Not wanting to incur any more debt, he investigated the original plans for the upgrade using the $1 million grant. Branch went back to the EPA with the original plans: Engineers assured him that they would still work.
“Currently, we have a 260-acre overland system, which is prone to opportunities for natural and animal contamination to the treated water prior to it exiting into state waters,” he explained. “This is where we are experiencing problems meeting state parameters with regard to our samples.”
The current 30-year-old system is built on an older oxidation plant facility, which was converted to a lateral overland plan. The process uses natural ways to evaporate and dry up the material. The new system is more modern, using clarifiers and putting it into a more liquid form. It goes out into Bushy Bayou then down to major waterways.
“With the new plans, we will only be using approximately 40–60 acres of the current treatment plant, which allows us to decrease our environmental footprint, and the natural and animal contamination opportunities will no longer be an issue.”
The overland system is located on land that faces I-20 before the Tallulah exit. With the amount of land used for the wastewater treatment plant decreasing, the city will own close to 200 acres of prime interstate development. The long-term plan is to use it to attract businesses, increasing sales tax revenue for the city.
While addressing the treatment plant, Branch also had to deal with a 65-year-old water plant. In early 2014 Tallulah endured a 24-hour period with no water. Because of the age of the plant and the problems it faced daily, it was imperative that this project happen as well. Tests taken over time also showed arsenic in the water, making it an emergency situation.
Over this past state legislative session, Branch successfully worked with the city, its engineering firm and their Louisiana state and federal delegation, including the state senator and governor, to ensure that news of their situation reached the appropriations personnel who could recommend it for state capital outlay. They were successful, and the city was just awarded $22 million for the project.
The entire project is expected to take between 36 and 48 months. It will be done in stages with the funding appropriated by stage. The money ensures that it will come to fruition without an unbearable burden on local taxpayers.
Based on his experience, Branch offered suggestions for addressing outdated infrastructure:
- “It is imperative that you be realistic about the life expectancy of your infrastructure.” Going in, he knew that the current wastewater treatment plant wasn’t meeting EPA standards. Also, the water plant would probably only last another five years at the maximum. He made them a top priority his first year in office.
- “Good record keeping is needed to show tests and results,” and they need to be kept over time. Tallulah’s water plant was operating using lime and chlorine, an outdated process. Lime can make the water look brown and cloudy. Then, of course, tests were showing arsenic in water samples.
- “It’s important to know how state and federal governmental funding allocations work, to enable events to move to your city’s advantage.” He was aware of the EPA emergency grant and plans already made for the upgrade. He also made sure that the state and federal delegation knew the trouble Tallulah would be in without a new water plant, and that they were aware of the problems the city faced daily due to the outdated infrastructure.
Since a good number of rural towns are facing the same infrastructure issues, it’s important for elected officials to understand how the funding process works and to place their city in a position where it is noticed, Branch added.