Undertreated sewage threatens Ascension’s environment

A camper navigates on New River.

Before growth and development boomed, Ascension Parish severely lacked a consolidated sewer system on the east bank of the Mississippi River. That has been a fact for decades and the problem has only worsened as undertreated sewage — outside the cities of Gonzales and Sorrento — is discharged into bayous and streams and mucks up New River, Bayou Manchac and Blind River.

While some newer neighborhoods outside the cities have built adequate private sewer systems, “there are many that aren’t” treating sewage to the standards of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, says Benny Johnson, who chairs the Parish Council’s Utilities Commission.

“New River is getting dumped into as much as any other outside of town,” Johnson says.

Despite the pollution, clutter of trash and sludge of algae, New River is popular among day campers for canoeing at the St. Theresa Summer Warrior Day Camp.

“We canoe it everyday; we know there is a problem,” says camp counselor Dylan Schexnaydre.

About 20 years ago, the public soundly rejected a $300 million plan that parish officials had presented to build a sewer system.

Now the project could cost up to $750 million, Johnson says, and take up to 40 years to complete.

At least 80,000 residents are contributing to the sewage pollution problem in the parish, Johnson estimates.

“With the growth of everything on the east side, that’s kind of what’s spurred this on,” Johnson says.

David Einsel, a senior project manager with Glenn Shaheen & Associates Inc., the parish’s sewer consultant, estimates 190 neighborhood private systems — including oxidation ponds and septic systems — are not treating sewage properly.

“We want to eliminate them,” Einsel says.

In fact, the oxidation pond behind the neighborhood of Southwood Village, off La. 73 in Prairieville, has become the epitome of everything that’s wrong with a growing parish not keeping pace with building necessary infrastructure, officials say.

“There are constant complaints about the odor,” Einsel says.

Campers at St. Theresa Summer Warrior Day Camp canoe on New River in Gonzales in late June. New River, including Bayou Manchac and Blind River, is among many bayous and waterways in Ascension Parish that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has identified as being polluted by undertreated sewage outside the cities of Gonzales and Sorrento. Parish officials are discussing plans with the public to build a consolidated sewer system to replace inefficient private wastewater systems.

Even the ditches alongside many of the roads in the parish often retain polluted water, Einsel says. He points to the ditches along Perkins Road near Walmart in Prairieville as a problem area.

Because the problem is worsening in areas close to where parish residents live and shop, officials are branding the latest campaign to build a sewer system as “Our environment, our responsibility.”

A lack of action could also impact the parish’s economic growth, officials say.

“Permits are getting harder and harder to justify, and we have to justify them to the (Environmental Protection Agency),” says DEQ engineer manager Chuck Berger.

In fact, officials fear the EPA will implement a consent decree and require improvements to private wastewater systems if the parish doesn’t build its own sewer system.

Questions, however, remain about how construction of a new sewer facility will be funded. Johnson says discussions have included implementing a half-cent sales tax and $200 parcel fee to generate approximately $14 million a year, but it’s unclear if residents will support those charges, especially since voters last November rejected a half-cent sales tax to improve the parish’s roads.

These ditches, polluted by undertreated sewage systems that serve private neighborhoods and residences, feed major bayous and waterways in Ascension Parish. Officials are discussing a $750 million plan to build a consolidated sewer system on the east bank of the parish, outside the cities of Gonzales and Sorrento.
Photos provided by Glenn Shaheen & Associates Inc., the parish’s sewer consultant.

The first part of the project would include main lines on Airline Highway, beginning at Bayou Manchac, and La. 42, before turning down La. 73 and eventually tying into a treatment plant near La. 30 and La. 73 that will dump treated sewage into the Mississippi River. Construction for this phase is estimated at $43.2 million. However, Einsel says this phase will be eligible for $18 million in state-revolving funds from the DEQ at an interest rate of 0.59 percent.

“Businesses are no longer going to want to come here” if nothing’s done, Einsel says.