In The News › S&WB work is an investment in New Orleans’ future: Editorial

S&WB work is an investment in New Orleans’ future: Editorial

By the Times-Picayune Editorial Board

As the city moved last week to double water and sewer rates over the next eight years, much of the discussion was on the cost to individual New Orleanians. That is entirely understandable. Residents and businesses will bear the burden of higher bills, which shouldn’t be taken lightly.
It is important, though, to appreciate the potential of this sort of investment in the city’s underpinnings.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu expects the $1.1 billion in sewer and water projects scheduled between now and 2020 to create 25,000 construction jobs in the city. For comparison, Louisiana officials have touted the addition of 51,500 jobs statewide over the past four years. Almost 200 permanent S&WB jobs will be added in the process. Delgado Community College is launching a training program to give students the skills for those jobs and to replenish the Sewerage & Water Board’s aging workforce.

Having in-house expertise is part of the lore of the Sewerage & Water Board. A. Baldwin Wood, a department engineer, famously designed pumps to drain New Orleans that were eventually used worldwide. In 1907, when bids to build the city’s sewer system came in too high, the superintendent recommended they be rejected and promised his workers could handle the work at a lower cost — which they did, according to a paper presented by then-Mayor Martin Behrman to the League of American Municipalities in 1914.

That will not be the approach, of course, with the work that is about to commence, but it is crucial to have enough skilled workers to manage the city’s complex water, sewer and drainage systems.

Interestingly, the arguments Mayor Landrieu made for this investment in infrastructure are similar to those made a century ago as the city began to try to get a grip on flooding, water purification and sewage treatment.

When Mayor Behrman presented his paper in Milwaukee on how the city had developed those systems, he talked about the importance to New Orleans’ economic vitality. In the late 1890s, he said, “We realized that we must decide quickly upon the adoption of a policy, either of progress and modernization on the one hand, or content ourselves, on the other, with remaining inert — satisfied with what we had and the conditions in which we lived, which would have been tantamount to a declaration in favor of retrogression and decay.”

That was a more dramatic moment than this one, to be sure. The city then was starting from zero and figuring out how to build a massive infrastructure system on some of the most difficult topography in the world.
The decision today is to shore up that system, which is wearing out after 100 years. The sacrifice now is to pay for repairs to a system that hasn’t been maintained as it should have been in the past 50 years and was further damaged by floodwaters when the levees broke during Katrina.

But the system’s decay is getting to the point where it could start to hold back the city. Twice recently, New Orleanians on the east bank of the Mississippi River have had to boil water before using it because of breakdowns at the S&WB. For years, the crumbling pipes underneath city streets have given way, leaving large sinkholes. As those pipes are fixed, others break.

These rate increases and the projects they will fund won’t fix every weakness in the system, an effort estimated to take $3.3 billion.

But the $583 million expected to be generated by the higher rates and money from FEMA will allow the S&WB to make significant improvements to the sewer and water systems. The money also should help stabilize the board’s finances and improve its bond rating.

The Bureau of Governmental Research, which came out in support of the rate hikes, notes that roughly 31 percent of the rate increase — $181 million — will go to operating and maintenance costs. The S&WB lacks a comprehensive plan for spending that operational money, BGR said, and needs to explain to ratepayers specifically how the money will be used. That should be done.

The agency also needs to demonstrate that it is operating as efficiently as possible. That hasn’t been the case in the past. Mayor Landrieu’s administration has pledged to push for a set of reforms in the upcoming legislative session that should depoliticize the way the governing board operates. Those are essential, but it also is important to improve the way the agency does its day-to-day business.

The need to invest in the S&WB system has been obvious for years, and especially so post-Katrina. With the city still recovering from a devastating disaster, it is essential for New Orleans to be in a position to grow.

The city has a burgeoning reputation as a magnet for entrepreneurs, the biomedical district downtown is growing, and film and tourism are flourishing. That is economic energy on which to build. But to make the most of those opportunities and give residents the level of services they need, New Orleans has to invest in itself.

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