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Copyright 2002 Chicago Tribune Company
Chicago Tribune

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 fixed.

"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 federal support.

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 public control.

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 Ralph Nader.

"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 company said.

'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."

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