Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Inevitably, impossibly, New Orleans lives with water. “With,” though, is a flexible term that, for more than 100 years, has been substantially informed by an engineering marvel: the city’s drainage system. 

Administered primarily by the Sewage and Water Board of New Orleans (SWBNO), that system — a force of nature in its own right that has exacerbated subsidence, but has also paved the way for development in places like Broadmoor and Gentilly — is not getting any younger. Neither is the sea getting any lower, nor the land getting any higher. And there’s a cost, of course, for all of it. 

The drainage system, which is essentially running at a deficit, is currently funded through a series of property taxes. The city and SWBNO said they would need $54.5 million per year by 2026 in new revenue in order to satisfy their obligations and maintain operations, according to the Bureau for Governmental Research (BGR), an independent research organization.

One nonprofit organization, the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans, has a different approach in mind that could either complement or replace the old system: an equity-based stormwater fee that would bankroll what they’re calling a “water justice fund.” While the nonprofit has yet to release a final draft of its proposal (it first plans to incorporate community feedback), the group outlined some ideas they said would promote equity in a 2019 white paper, which included offering need-based exemptions for certain residents and implementing credit programs. 

“Challenges around our drainage system are multifaceted, complex, and honestly confusing,” Jessica Dandridge, executive director of the Water Collaborative, said in a press release on Thursday, the same day the organization held a kickoff event for the initiative at the Broadside in Mid-City. “That’s why I believe the status quo is no longer adequate for 21st-century problems. To fix the problems, you need big solutions.” 

The fund would also be used to invest in so-called green infrastructure projects that would benefit communities and encourage job growth, the organization said. 

The group plans to embark on a listening tour of sorts this summer in order to “help residents understand our city’s challenges and receive feedback on our policy recommendations,” the group said. They also plan to convene with the city’s leaders and organizations like the Greater New Orleans Foundation and Greater New Orleans, Inc. before submitting a proposal to the Mayor and City Council next June. 

“Greater New Orleans, Inc. recognizes the need to educate, empower, and unite all New Orleanians — in hand with our businesses, organizations, and institutions — around the need to maintain, reimagine, and modernize our water infrastructure,” Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., said in a statement. 

The Lens reached out to the mayor’s office along with those of the councilmembers on Friday morning to ask if they would support, in principle, a stormwater fee.

“The City works regularly with the Water Collaborative on stormwater management policies and programs and is generally and largely in support of community-led efforts by the Water Collaborative to study more equitable funding systems; however, we cannot offer an official opinion until we are provided an official proposal,” John Lawson, a spokesperson for Mayor Cantrell, told The Lens.

For their part, some councilmembers’ offices said they’re open to the idea.

“Councilmember Green is personally supportive of a stormwater fee,” a spokesperson said by email. “However, it is important that the general public see its benefits as well. In order to achieve public support for a stormwater fee, it is imperative that proponents of the fee educate the public as to its benefits and necessity.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Councilmember Harris said that she is “absolutely open to exploring a stormwater fee, so long as it is imposed equitably and used responsibly.”

The office of Councilmember Helena Moreno pointed The Lens to her support of “carefully [crafting] a parcel fee for City services on nonprofits exempt from property taxes,” that could yield more revenue for city services, like drainage, without raising taxes. 

Ghost in the turbine

The Water Collabortive’s effort is not the first time a stormwater fee has been proposed in New Orleans – in fact, the initiative represents something of a resurrection. In 1985, voters rejected a bid to impose a stormwater fee, and the City Council abandoned a similar measure in 1998 that the SWBNO claimed at the time didn’t require voter approval. 

But in the intervening decades, stormwater fees have been introduced in dozens of states and the District of Columbia, notably in many municipalities that are much less rainy than is New Orleans (which consistently clocks in with some highest annual precipitation yields). For its part, BGR laid out numerous recommendations that would help the city and SWBNO create an effective, equitable stormwater fee.

And for New Orleans, the stakes are high. Not only was SWBNO unable to fund its current drainage needs, BGR said in the report, but it also wasn’t in a position to adequately fund capital improvement. 

For his part, Ghassan Korban, the utility’s CEO, told the New Orleans City Council in March that it had $88 million in bad debt. The SWBNO, though, stated in a quarterly report it had $152 million of unpaid, delinquent bills on its books

The utility flirted with hiking rates last year before the Office of Inspector General advised it to fix notorious billing issues before raising prices. Korban backed off the rate hike idea in March. 

For Jessica Dandridge of the Water Collaborative, an important part of the conversation involves reimaging infrastructure in a way that promotes community building and healthy living.

“Green Infrastructure not only is a way to sink and slow water, it’s a way to build community,” she said. “It supports, not only with flooding, but [with] heat island effects, with quality of life and public health.”

Update: This story has been updated to include a response from Mayor Cantrell’s office.
Clarification: This story has also been updated to clarify the names of the organizations involved.

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...