WATER AND SEWER SERVICES: MARCIA ST. MARTIN
The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans is responsible for providing drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater services for the city of New Orleans and parts of Jefferson, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines parishes, said its executive director, Marcia St. Martin. But because much of New Orleans is significantly below sea level, the agency faces distinct challenges and is well versed in the concepts of resilience and recovery.
Since Hurricane Katrina, the agency has been rebuilding its infrastructure to be more resilient. Following the storm, the wastewater treatment plant contained 18 feet of water, and the city cannot exist without viable wastewater treatment. The plant was dewatered within about 10 days of the closure of the federal levee system, and it was doing primary treatment 30 days after that. Since then, controls have been moved to a higher level, and berms now protect critical infrastructure around the plant. The plant is being rebuilt in such a way that employees will not have to be evacuated as they were during Katrina. And the agency is engaged in a wetlands assimilation project involving its wastewater treatment plant, in which ash and solids from the plant are being deposited into adjacent wetlands to enhance the levee. “It is a holistic process,” said St. Martin.
The Sewerage and Water Board could not make these and other advances without partners. For example, protecting the city from an incoming storm surge is the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Sewerage and Water Board is working with the corps to rebuild infrastructures around the levee system. The agency is also responsible for the purification and distribution of drinking water, which requires electrical power. The agency has relied in part on a 1903 25-cycle power plant that is being rebuilt to be more sustainable and reliable.
A key component of infrastructure is not just the hard structures but its employees. A major challenge of Katrina was that 80 percent of the agency’s team had lost their homes. The people who were on duty the day of the storm were suddenly homeless. “How do you provide for their mental stability, their financial stability? [How do you] plan for that in the future?”
The agency was able to bring in professionals from other parts of the water industry, and local jurisdictions provided assistance following Katrina. Employees from New Orleans also were able to continue working for New Orleans from surrounding jurisdictions. “We had some employees up to 6 months working in water utilities throughout North America.”
Another important lesson of Katrina was learning how to respond to the financial impact of losing both a major portion of a customer base and strong bond ratings. The agency sought to keep in touch with its customers around the country who still owned abandoned homes. The agency also had to spend more than $1 billion in restoration and recovery without being able to draw on the