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Gov. Landry seeks scrutiny of Sewerage & Water Board in executive order

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Gov. Landry seeks scrutiny of Sewerage & Water Board in executive order

Feb 28, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Greg LaRose
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Gov. Landry seeks scrutiny of Sewerage & Water Board in executive order
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The Sewerage and Water Board plant in New Orleans, pictured Aug. 18, 2022. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

NEW ORLEANS — Wildly inaccurate customer bills, persistent flood threats, frequent power failures and drinking water concerns are reasons why Gov. Jeff Landry says a closer look is needed at the operations of the Sewerage and Water Board. 

The governor issued an executive order Tuesday that sets up a 14-member task force to evaluate the 125-year-old state-created utility that handles drainage, sewage treatment and drinking water for the city. Much of its critical infrastructure dates back to the early 20th century, leading to frequent water line breaks, street flooding and advisories to boil water.

Through the order, Landry gave himself clear control over who will comprise the task force, with four picks of his own and three others from his cabinet secretaries. Business and industry organizations have also been given representation, along with the neighboring Jefferson Parish Public Works Department. 

The governor will also pick the chair of the task force, which was among the recommendations of a transition committee Landry created to focus on New Orleans.

Noticeably excluded is anyone from the utility itself, the New Orleans City Council, which regulates the utility, or the office of the New Orleans mayor, who chairs the S&WB’s directors. 

“We appreciate the opportunity to delve into our major initiatives, discuss challenges, and identify areas for collaboration with our local, state, and federal partners,” reads a statement from the Sewerage and Water Board in response to the governor’s executive order.

There was no immediate response to the order from Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

The Governor’s Task Force on the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans will include, in addition to four appointees from the governor, individual members chosen by:

  • The state transportation secretary
  • The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority executive director
  • The Department of Environmental Quality secretary
  • The American Council of Engineering Companies of Louisiana
  • The Louisiana Engineering Society
  • Louisiana Associated General Contractors
  • Jefferson Parish Public Works
  • Greater New Orleans Inc.
  • The Business Council of New Orleans
  • New Orleans & Co.

The governor’s order mentions the Sewerage and Water Board “remains under investigation by various agencies to determine the scale of corruption” within the agency, and that “hundreds of millions of dollars from local, state, and federal sources” has been spent to address its widespread issues.

A series of recent investigative reports from the Illuminator and WVUE-TV Fox 8 found Sewerage and Water Board employees had falsified results from drinking water tests and routinely skipped sample sites. The testing regimen, outlined in state and federal law, is supposed to be followed to ensure public health.

The Sewerage and Water Board has dismissed one of the employees singled out in the report, and two others left the utility before the reports were published. 

A separate probe from WWL-TV in 2022 uncovered rampant self-dealing and rubber-stamping with the S&WB plumbing department. The reporting led to an FBI raid on the Sewerage and Water Board’s offices. The department’s director is facing embezzlement charges.  

Billing problems have plagued the utility despite repeated efforts to address them. Stories of household customers receiving bills well into the four- and five-figures are commonplace, as well as frustrating accounts of the S&WB’s byzantine and often fruitless process to appeal overbilling.

In its response statement, the Sewerage and Water Board said a switch to “smart meters” will end its current reliance on manual meter-reading. The switchover is expected to be completed “in the next few years,” according to the utility. 

The Sewerage and Water Board also leans heavily on estimates based on past water usage to calculate bills, although at times the figures used rely on erroneous readings.

A permanent Entergy New Orleans substation is being built at the S&WB main plant to address frequent power outages that lead to drops in water pressure and drainage pump shutdowns. The systems currently rely on an outdated mode of power from aging turbines that often fail at peak usage. Backup generators, meant for spot duty, have become a go-to power source. 

Even with a new substation — one that’s expected to come online by summer 2025 — the utility will still have to convert the modern power supply to run its very old equipment, a remaining opportunity for failure. An upgrade to a completely modern equipment across all systems has been priced in the billions, a cost elected officials have been unwilling to pass along to customers.

“The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans welcomes the attention to our utility and our city’s critical needs,” the statement said. “We understand the importance of restoring public trust and are encouraged by the alignment of our priorities with that of the Governor’s New Orleans Transition Council.”