In his first detailed public remarks since city officials wrung millions of dollars for New Orleans infrastructure out of the state and the tourism industry, Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban on Tuesday laid out his initial plans for spending the money.
Speaking two days after the city's latest flood and a little over a week after a burst pipe prompted a boil-water advisory for much of Uptown, Korban said the agency will begin the "daunting" task of rebuilding its antiquated infrastructure "one pump at a time," and will start shifting toward using Entergy-supplied power for the city's pumps in a move aimed at long-term cost savings.
The S&WB also plans to direct funds toward water main repairs and a plan to replace water meters, Korban said at a Bureau of Governmental Research breakfast briefing, noting that his agency is in the process of laying out a master plan that will detail its needs and potential solutions.
The need for upgrades exists across nearly all aspects of the S&WB's drainage, sewerage and water infrastructure.
Korban has stressed that the $50 million in short-term funding and $26 million in recurring annual revenue the agency will get under a deal worked out by Mayor LaToya Cantrell is still barely a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of dollars of work needed after decades of under-investment.
Highlighting those needs, the S&WB on Tuesday also released the clearest picture yet of the age of its existing pipes.
An interactive map posted on its website shows what many residents have learned amid regular water-main breaks and boil-water advisories: For large swaths of the city, nearly all of the existing water pipes are over a century old and in need of replacement.
On May 3, a 114-year-old water main burst under South Claiborne Avenue at Soniat Street, flooding streets and leaving most of Uptown under a boil-water advisory for a day.
Korban said he intends to use some of the agency’s newfound money to begin to replace the water mains, the large pipes that deliver drinking water to homes and businesses. A third of the city's water mains are more than 100 years old, and almost half were laid down at least 80 years ago.
New Orleans has to repair pipes at a rate nearly five times the national average, and it loses more than half the water it produces because of leaks and breaks, he said.
Those breaks often lead to boil-water orders. The city has had 28 such orders since 2010, a rate that Korban, a 31-year veteran of public works departments, said he "had never heard of."
“It takes one second for you to have a slight pressure change, or a shift in the soil, and (the pipe) just pops,” Korban said. “We are trying to deal with all of these conditions as best we can.”
The former Milwaukee public works commissioner spoke a week after Cantrell hashed out a deal with tourism industry leaders to provide more cash for his agency.
Cantrell has said that the funding — which still needs to be approved by state lawmakers — is a key step toward overhauling the agency’s outdated infrastructure following an August 2017 deluge that caused widespread flooding and exposed the sorry state of the S&WB's drainage system.
The $50 million would come from a combination of unspent state disaster money and funding from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which has a $235 million reserve.
The $26 million in recurring money would largely come from higher taxes on hotels and short-term rentals, rededicated money that will be freed up by merging two tourism marketing agencies and higher property taxes in the Central Business District.
Korban said specifics about where his agency is headed will be outlined in a master plan he hopes to unveil within three years. "You have to know where you are going in order to get there,” he said.
But he plans to immediately use a portion of the $26 million to help the S&WB move away from providing its own power through steam turbines. That generation costs as much as four times the amount the agency would pay to purchase power from Entergy, he said.
He will pour another portion of that cash into upgrades to the water distribution system. That will come on top of the more than $2 billion in FEMA dollars the agency is splitting with the Department of Public Works to address leaky pipes and pothole-ridden roads over the next few years.
Roughly $34 million of the upfront money will be used to satisfy unpaid invoices to S&WB vendors, Korban said, while $14 million will be used to pay for capital projects.
Korban also intends to replace S&WB water meters with modern devices that will provide up-to-date information on water usage and that can reduce billing errors, he said. A request for bids will be released this year; the cost of that work has previously been pegged at $50 million.
Korban repeated his call for a new stormwater management fee to help support the drainage system, but it's unclear when the Cantrell administration will start actively pushing for that fee.
Once steady funding begins pouring in annually, “then the work becomes the easy part,” Korban added. “It will take years, and a great deal of effort, but it can happen.”