Copyright 2002 Chicago Tribune Company
July 7, 2002 Sunday, CHICAGOLAND FINAL EDITION
Rotting sewer, water lines tough problem in Big Easy
For more than three months, Dwayne Romig watched with a
sickening sense of futility as a huge section of the street in front of
his house in Uptown New Orleans sank lower and lower into the earth.
"I called the Sewerage and Water Board repeatedly,"
Romig said, "and they kept saying they were going to send someone out.
But it took months before anything happened." To make matters worse, it
was the third time Romig had had to deal with New Orleans' rotting
sewerage infrastructure. First a sewer pipe broke beneath his driveway,
which required workers to break up the concrete to get to the problem.
Then another leak flooded the cast-iron plate, which
bears the crescent moon insignia of the board, covering the water main
in front of Romig's house. That, too, took several weeks before it was
"This is New Orleans," Romig said with a shrug. "There
are leaks and ponds everywhere."
Throughout the city, which is more than 6 feet below sea
level in some areas, water main breaks, leaking fire hydrants and
collapsed sewerage basins are common, frequently creating magical
springs and cooling pools that delight neighborhood children and stray
dogs, but hardly anyone else.
Plenty of company
Sewerage and Water Board officials point out that New Orleans' problems
are hardly singular.
"All over the country you are seeing things like this
going on," said Harold Gorman, the board's executive director. "As our
cities have gotten older, so have the water and sewerage systems that
were put in to serve them."
Gorman estimates that New Orleans is facing at least $1
billion in repairs and improvements to its sewer and water systems in
the next decade.
"There's no way to get around it," he said. "We are
going to have to put up a lot of money, and where that money ultimately
comes from is not entirely certain."
Across the country, many cities have issued bonds to
underwrite expensive infrastructure construction and repairs as they
wait to see the fate of a bill before Congress that could provide
Other cities have tried privatization as an answer.
"We can relieve the cities of a burden that, for them,
can just get more and more expensive as time goes on," said Don Evans,
president of OMI-Thames, one of the nation's largest water and
wastewater contract service operators.
Through public-private partnerships in more than 170
cities, OMI-Thames typically takes control of what Evans calls "only an
aspect of the overall operation, such as their sewerage system."
Cities such as Peoria and Pekin, Ill., went the
privatization route several years ago. But because of unanticipated
costs and problems with their contractor, Illinois-American Water Co.,
both cities have moved to return their water and wastewater services to
Contracts between OMI-Thames and its municipal clients
typically have run three to five years. But in 1997, changes in federal
law allowed municipalities to enter into longer contracts of up to 20
years, a span that some analysts find worrisome.
"What happens with these longer kinds of contracts is
that the city loses control," said Alex Tsybine, a policy analyst with
Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group founded by
"The three- to five-year contracts were like a system of
checks and balances for the cities," Tsybine said. "If the company did
not live up to its promises, the city could choose to not renew their
contract; choosing another company, or going entirely public again."
Longer contracts, he said, can prove much more costly
for cities. He noted that Atlanta, which privatized its water operations
through United Water Services three years ago as a way to cut costs,
ended up being hit with an unexpected $12 million in reimbursement
claims. Atlanta also faced an additional $4 million-per-year bill on a
20-year contract after United Water said it discovered a workload "three
times to what was specified in the contract," a spokesman for the
'Opportunity for mischief'
If New Orleans' sewer and water system eventually goes
private, it could be the largest privatization project in the nation,
with a 20-year contract that could be worth more than $1 billion.
"Because it is going to be so large, there is a huge
opportunity for mischief," said Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of
Governmental Research, a civic group in New Orleans.
Although most city officials have backed the idea,
prospects for privatization have been muddled by charges that the
proposed bidding process is faulty and could favor political insiders.
In addition, in March voters passed a referendum requiring the sewer and
water board to seek voter approval for all private contracts valued at
more than $5 million.
I think the intention behind that referendum was noble,
but its effect will be to reduce the board to a ridiculous level of
micromanagement," Howard said. "It actually increases the dysfunctional
governance problem that the sewerage and water board already has."