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Small Town Struggles to Protect the Fountain of Its Livelihood

Abita Springs was rocked when bacteria was found in the pristine water from its aquifer.

January 29, 2006|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

ABITA SPRINGS, La. — For more than a century, the meager fortunes of this town have rested squarely on a glacial aquifer once thought to be a fountain of wellness -- if not youth. It is so crystalline, so well protected by layers of impenetrable rock, that this is one of the few towns in the nation whose water supply has never required any treatment.

So, when late last year, coliform bacteria turned up in a sample taken from a maze of pipes connected to the Abita Springs well, the town was in a tizzy.

Subsequent tests failed to confirm the contamination, and engineers believe the problem stems from faulty pipes, not the water supply. Still, state health officials demanded a remedy. So Abita Springs is spending its winter searching for a chemical-free solution to a serious image problem.

"We don't want to do anything to the water," said Mayor Louis Fitzmorris. "That is what defines us, in a sense."

Generations of Louisiana residents, many of them from moneyed families in nearby New Orleans, once made regular pilgrimages to Abita Springs, which is near the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Many came to "take the waters" from the area's natural springs.

The springs have had a near-mythical aura ever since Native Americans visited them an estimated 8,000 years ago. A Choctaw princess supposedly retreated from the brink of death after sampling the water. Later, some believed it had such healing powers that Juan Ponce de Leon -- then searching for the fountain of youth in the Bahamas -- should have been looking here instead.

By the late 1800s, Abita Springs was a bustling resort, connected by train to New Orleans and home to a cluster of Borscht Belt-style hotels filled with people seeking restoration and respite from the coastal mosquitoes, which were carrying yellow fever at the time.

Eventually, the fever died out and modern medicine rendered the town's nickname -- "nature's own pharmacy" -- quaint and outdated. Business wilted, and the hotels and boarding houses closed.

What's left today is a simple, rustic town, shadowed by towering pines and live oaks. There are horse farms, produce stands and about 2,500 people, a smattering of artists, one traffic light and the old-time Abita Springs Opry, so popular that people who can't get inside sit on the sidewalk to listen to Louisiana "roots" music.

Residents and some visitors still flock to a town park to fill gallon jugs with water spouting from two lion heads carved from stone.

The name of the community is attached to two large businesses: a water supplier and a brewery. Both rely on the pristine reputation of the springs to bolster their own.

Abita Springs Water Co. was founded in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, and the local Abita Brewing Co., which taps the aquifer through its own wells, sold 52,000 barrels of beer last year, the equivalent of 17.2 million bottles.

The companies' websites underscore the importance of the water's quality to the region.

"In Abita, we are blessed with the purest of water," the brewery writes. "[O]ur pristine water is not altered in any way." The water company gets downright catty about others' purification efforts: "The filtration process used to 'sanitize' water -- whether in the city or out in the country -- can result in, shall we say, unpleasant and unnatural taste."

"That's why we're here," said David Blossman, president of the beer company. "It's all about the water."

Periodically, state regulators have pressured the town to use chemicals to treat the aquifer, but town officials have staved them off. Fitzmorris thought the noble fight was over when he announced in November that the town would be forced to stoop to chlorination. The news was considered blasphemous.

And it came at a busy and trying time. Though Abita Springs did not suffer the flooding that ravaged New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina toppled thousands of trees here, badly damaging several historic structures and causing about $3.5 million in damage -- almost twice the town's annual budget.

At the same time, interest in "north shore" communities of the New Orleans region has risen dramatically; towns like this, despite their remoteness, are seen as safer alternatives to rebuilding in flood zones.

Even while Abita Springs waits on insurance checks and continues cleaning up from the storm, its population has swollen by 500 people since Katrina, and as many as 400 homes are expected to be built here within the next few years.

Fitzmorris, 42, has been mayor for three years. He came into office as an outsized police scandal was unfolding. Several of the town's officers were accused of malfeasance, including bribery and selling illegal weapons.

"Since I've been mayor, there hasn't been a dull moment," Fitzmorris said. "I don't have to worry about being bored. But my job is to be optimistic. And I am."

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