A more holistic vision of water management that calls for looking to low-tech solutions to improve New Orleans’ drainage is on tap for the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans, Executive Director Cedric Grant said Thursday.
But after 115 days on the job, he said, his main goal is overhauling a beleaguered agency that is hampered by outdated equipment and frequently criticized for its lack of responsiveness.
“By the time (my) term is over, there will be no dysfunction,” Grant told several dozen people at a breakfast meeting held by the Bureau of Governmental Research. “There will be accountability and progress.”
The speech, Grant’s first public discussion of his role since he was appointed to lead the water board this summer, laid out a promise of improvement and a more environmentally friendly approach.
Though the agency is still focused on the so-called “gray projects” that it is most associated with — pipes and large-scale construction — it also has turned its attention to “green projects” and is looking at how to incorporate natural drainage into its plans, Grant said. That approach includes features now referred to by fancy names like “bioswales” and “rain gardens” but that refer to age-old concepts: ditches and retention ponds.
It could involve incorporating those practices into land use, as well as in the systems controlled by the board, he said.
“If there’s a possibility of you preventing 50 or 100 gallons of rainwater from getting into my drainage system, you won’t be calling me and saying, ‘My street’s flooding,’ ” Grant said.
That approach fits with the model that has been outlined in the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, which calls for considering drainage options other than simply pumping water out of the city as quickly as possible, and promoted by the New Orleans Water Collaborative.
At the same time, Grant touted the agency’s financial standing, noting that its bond ratings have gone from junk status to relatively high, making it easier to sell bonds. And he stressed that the water board should be considered an economic development engine, citing a 10-year plan that he said would create 27,000 jobs and lead to $7.7 billion in economic activity.
Grant also offered hints that the agency might be branching out into new territory: providing Internet service. Asked whether New Orleans plans to follow Lafayette’s lead in installing a municipal fiber optic service, Grant said officials are actively discussing how to create such a system.
Back in 1999, the board was granted authority to become a fiber optic utility, but nothing ever came of that proposal.
“Sometimes people do visionary things and then forget,” Grant said.
Now, with the growth of fiber optic networks in New Orleans and the potential to piggyback on ongoing work on the city streets, Grant said, it is time for the board to get into the game.
“We have the authority and we have the ability, and so we have to, in the midst of this construction, seize the opportunity,” he said.
In addition to the infrastructure challenges facing it, the water board also faces personnel issues. About 400 of its 1,050 employees are eligible for retirement, and Grant said he expects to lose about 100 of them each year for the next four years.
The board is working with Delgado Community College to train new employees, and Grant said he is talking with the city’s Civil Service Department about how to get graduates from the Delgado program to the front of the line for jobs with the agency so that they can get “a diploma and a S&WB ID badge at the same time.”
Grant — who is still overseeing public works for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration in addition to his new job at the water board — said the board and city are working more closely together than ever before.
The consolidation has allowed city and board engineers to work together on five projects so far to ensure their efforts are not duplicated, Grant said. About 40 more projects are in the works, and there also is talk of combining maintenance duties, he said.
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