2016 aerial image of S&WB's East Bank Wastewater Treatment Plant in the Lower Ninth Ward. The demonstration cells are pictured here, directly adjacent to the plant. Credit: LDEQ

A wastewater assimilation project developed by the Sewerage & Water Board has cost about $9 million since 2007 — but the utility has yet to discharge a single gallon of treated wastewater.

The effort was heavily promoted by the S&WB and the city of New Orleans in years past. The agency and the city announced in November 2011 that they were partnering with St. Bernard Parish to help rebuild the Central Wetlands around Bayou Bienvenue. Those wetlands have been severely damaged by saltwater intrusion along the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, dramatically so in storm surge from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Wastewater assimilation is a concept that has been adopted by at least 11 other local governments and utilities in Louisiana since 1992. With the assimilation technique, treated wastewater is discharged at wetland sites, providing nutrients such as nitrogen to the area and fostering vegetative growth and soil accumulation while hindering saltwater intrusion.

“The project we are beginning today fits in perfectly with what I said at my inauguration, ‘It’s time to declare that we are no longer recovering, we are no longer building … now we are creating,’” said then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu at a 2011 groundbreaking ceremony for the S&WB’s Wetlands Assimilation Project. “And creating we are, as we take an environmental journey into new territory which is already getting the attention of scientific groups from across the country.”

The assimilation project was described at the time as “an innovative partnership between the Sewerage and Water Board and the St. Bernard Parish government to restore 20,000 acres of Bayou Bienvenue,” according to the 2011 press release. Then-Parish President Craig Taffaro attended the groundbreaking with Landrieu and S&WB officials.

But in the seven-plus years since then, the S&WB’s assimilation project has been restricted to 14 acres of “demonstration cells” adjacent to the agency’s East Bank Wastewater Treatment Plant in the Lower 9th Ward and another 17 acres in an expansion site next to those.

And while a nursery of at least 1,250 bald cypress trees and several thousand other plants were planted in the demonstration cells early last year, no wastewater ever has been discharged to the cells or the expansion area. That’s according to Ann Wilson, the S&WB’s chief of environmental affairs.

“Right now, the salinity of the soil in the demonstration plot, as well as the water that is in that plot, [have] low enough salinity for these plants to thrive and they also have enough water for them to grow, as well,” Wilson said.

Permits issued, millions spent

She said the S&WB has a permit from LDEQ to discharge no more than 144,000 gallons of water a day, and only into the 14-acre demonstration cells. It’s just never used that permit.

The S&WB has also applied for a second permit for the 17-acre expansion site, she said.

“We’re eagerly awaiting our discharge permit from the state to authorize this second discharge” into the expansion area, Wilson said. “And we anticipate the discharge to be the same as the demonstration cells, approximately 144,000 gallons of treated wastewater per day. Again, we would not discharge into Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle,” but rather a small area directly adjacent to the plant.

That amount of water is truly a drop in the bucket. The East Bank treatment facility is permitted to discharge up to 122 million gallons of wastewater after treatment into the Mississippi River, each day.

2016 aerial image of S&WB’s East Bank Wastewater Treatment Plant, located in the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle. Credit: LDEQ

Instead of wastewater, the newly planted cypress trees and other vegetation have been well watered by rainfall and protected from saltwater by a berm around the demonstration cells.

As for why it has taken so many years to get to even this early stage in the project, Wilson cited a few factors.

“Some of the things that we accomplished in the building of the bermed areas, we were required to get coastal permits, which take time to get,” Wilson told The Lens, referring to Coastal Use Permits required by the state’s Department of Natural Resources for any such projects impacting waters in the state’s coastal zone. “We also had to go out on bid for the piping for the treated effluent to be discharged to the wetland. That contractor went into default. And so that delayed the process of the construction more than a year — I want to say it was more of two years.”

In 2011, S&WB projected the total cost of the project at $65 million, though that included St. Bernard Parish’s part of the project. Funding including $10.4 million in grants from the state and the Delta Regional Authority. Between 2007 and 2017, the agency spent $8.9 million on the project, financial records show.

Everything needed to begin assimilation discharge is place now, Wilson said, apart from the LDEQ permit for the expansion site. The permit for the demonstration cells expired about five years ago but has been “administratively continued” by LDEQ, allowing discharges there to go forward pending agency action to renew the permit. LDEQ told The Lens in March that permit renewal was in process.

And even now, S&WB is in no rush to begin discharging.

“Our goal is not just to discharge wastewater just to say we did it but to do it because there is an environmentally sound reason why we need to,” Wilson said. “If the trees and vegetation are thriving just by the development of a bermed area, which has then lessened the saltwater intrusion of the waters in Bayou Bienvenue — and just naturally occurring rainwater flushing the salt from the soil and providing water for the trees and native grasses — then there’s really not a need to say, ‘Let’s open a valve and discharge treated wastewater to the demonstration cells.’ ”

Another delaying factor has been St. Bernard Parish’s withdrawal from the joint project, Wilson said.

“Not only at one time were we talking about the demonstration and the expansion project, but there was also a project known as A2,” Wilson said, “which was to build a pipeline to St. Bernard Parish and to discharge into that area where St. Bernard Parish already has an existing wetland. And that project did not move forward. We did receive a coastal permit for that project, but we did not get the needed right-of-ways for that pipeline to be built.”

St. Bernard Parish has been permitted to discharge treated wastewater into the Poydras-Verret Wetland since 2003. Parish officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Technique under state review

Wastewater assimilation is under fire from some residents and conservation groups, who say it has further damaged wetland sites and lessens the ability of those wetlands to offer storm surge protections.

The La. Department of Environmental Quality, one of the agencies that regulate these assimilation systems, has said it is reviewing all of the projects across the state. A particular study has been commissioned to focus on the City of Hammond’s assimilation system, which discharges south of Ponchatoula at the edge of the Joyce Wildlife Management Area.

After years of saltwater intrusion, open water covers much of the once-wetland area of Bayou Bienvenue. Credit: Tom Wright/The Lens

The S&WB’s environmental chief insists that, whatever the means for it, wetland restoration around Bayou Bienvenue remains a worthwhile goal. In addition to storm surge protections, Wilson cited the potential for new recreational opportunities in the area as well as new wildlife habitats.

“It is unfortunate that saltwater intrusion with MRGO over the years has caused the disappearance of the cypress swamp, and this is one step to see can it be restored with these types of projects,” Wilson said. “When you look at the area outside the treatment plant and in Bayou Bienvenue, it’s just open water. So no real, true trees and marsh grasses are going to grow until we diminish the salinity and build up the land.”

Lens editor Charles Maldonado contributed to this report.