In 1925, tiny Tallulah, La., was the first city to open an indoor shopping mall. The historical landmark still stands on U.S. Route 80 but was converted to an apartment complex several years ago.

Such reinvention is necessary in a community that’s lost one-fifth of its population since 2000. Although Tallulah is the seat of Madison Parish, service to 7,300 people living in less than 3 square miles was bound to be compromised by subsequent drops in tax revenue.

One casualty was the water system.

Tallulah is about 200 miles north of New Orleans. The landlocked city draws water from an alluvial aquifer rich in iron, magnesium, and other constituents that are removed with lime.

Like any treatment method, lime can have negative impacts on a water system if not managed. In the near-decade since they’d been cleaned, the city’s clear wells had significant sludge buildup, pumps were working harder than necessary, lime was getting into 70 miles of pipeline, and residents were complaining almost daily about clogged appliances and funky-tasting water.

“The tanks’ conditions were like drinking water out of a dirty glass,” says Carlton Whitaker, a Level 4 state-certified water operator and consultant specializing in water treatment, production, and distribution.

The situation came to a head with a crisis: a 24-hour period in which there was no water to the entire city.

When he entered office in June 2014, Mayor Paxton Branch vowed that he and water department employees would find a fix that wouldn’t involve contractors. And they did: Project Clear Well.

The city’s four clear wells have a combined storage capacity of 562,000 gallons. Last summer, three were systematically pumped out, cleaned, disinfected, and returned to service after testing confirmed the water was safe to drink. Not wanting to disrupt service to anyone, the department cleaned one tank at a time.

“The biggest challenge was beginning the process,” says Branch. “Everyone was worried that we’d lose pressure or have to shut down the water supply. But you just have to have confidence in your people.”

Turbidity and pH levels are both lower, and employees moved on to the next phase of their new proactive maintenance program: cleaning the filters that water from the clear wells goes through for further purification.

Branch is working hard to find the $22 million necessary to replace the 65-year-old, 1.5 mgd treatment plant. He figures it has a decade of life left.

“In the meantime, we need to make sure that we’re taking good care of our existing infrastructure and that means proactive maintenance,” he says. “This means a lot not just to residents but also to attracting more business to our community. Water is very important. It’s a common denominator for everybody.”