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Flooding is a big problem in New Orleans. Could a stormwater fee help?

A stack of blue handouts is in the foreground that read "Water Justice New Orleans, Democratize Drainage, When we rise up, we keep the water down." A stack of white handouts sits next to them in the background that read the same.
Scott Henrichsen
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The Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans
The Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans has a plan to more equitably fund stormwater infrastructure. It hopes the City Council will write an ordinance based on its recommendations.

Old infrastructure, subsidence and extreme rainfall caused by climate change are worsening flooding in New Orleans. That, plus rising insurance rates are pushing residents out of the city.

Just last weekend, many New Orleanians were frustrated when heavy rain led to severe flooding in parts of the city. The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans says it needs about $1 billion to upgrade the city’s drainage system over the next decade — and it doesn’t know where that money will come from.

The Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans has a plan to fill the gap and improve the city’s relationship with water: collect a stormwater fee from property ownerse.

“Finally we're getting a chance to talk about governance, new policies and how we live with and manage the water,” said councilmember Oliver Thomas at the press conference on Wednesday announcing the Water Collaborative’s plan.

Many other cities have adopted stormwater fees in recent years. A survey conducted by Western Kentucky University found roughly 2,100 stormwater utilities as of last June. Some sort of stormwater fee was collected in 42 states and the District of Columbia. East Baton Rouge Parish collects the only one in Louisiana.

Funding stormwater costs equitably

The Water Collaborative’s plan is three years in the making. The non-profit spent much of that time engaging the community, talking to residents from each precinct in the city. And its proposal draws knowledge from cities that have already implemented stormwater fees, including Baltimore and Philadelphia.

New Orleans’ stormwater infrastructure is currently funded through property taxes, which means tax-exempt properties don’t contribute. Under a fee structure, all property owners would pay.

As the fee is phased in, the rate would be based on size for single-family properties. For all other properties, it would be based on the amount of impervious area.

“Concrete doesn't drink water. How much concrete do you have on your property? That's how we base your rate,” said Rebecca Malpass, the Water Collaborative’s policy and research director.

There would also be exemptions for property owners who can prove annually that they would be unfairly burdened financially by the stormwater fee. The non-profit estimates the fee would bring in almost $38 million a year.

In addition to filling the SWBNO’s funding gap, some of the funds would be used to incentivize owners to increase the permeability of their properties, as well as on green infrastructure projects and community improvement programs.

‘Cycle of distrust’

The Water Collaborative said during its community outreach, residents expressed concern that money collected from a stormwater fee could be misused, citing a history of scandals and mismanagement by SWBNO in particular.

The plan recommends turning the city’s Office of Resilience & Sustainability into a permanent department and creating a division of stormwater management that would oversee the fee and allocate funding for projects and programs. A community advisory community would hold it accountable.

“We have heard from the community — even council members who have been outspoken about this — they don't trust the Sewerage and Water Board,” said Malpass. “They will not vote for it if all of this goes to the Sewerage and Water Board.”

However, the plan also recommends consolidating all drainage infrastructure under the Sewerage and Water Board. Currently, it is spread between the board and the Department of Public Works.

Ghassan Korban, executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board, said the agency agrees that a stormwater fee is needed to improve infrastructure and generate revenue more equitably, but said a new department isn’t necessary. He wants SWBNO to oversee the fund directly.

“To focus, priority or attention on creating a new authority seems to be, in my mind, distracting from the main initiative and cause that we're all, again, universally supportive of," he said.

The Sewerage and Water Board announced last week that it is working on its own plan, which Korban said will be flexible and is just a starting point for the City Council to create a stormwater fee.

“Obviously the Water Collaborative is one of many that have to weigh in and bring us their perspective,” he said.

The Water Collaborative hopes the City Council will write an ordinance based on its recommendations.

Councilmember Oliver Thomas says there needs to be collaboration between these groups and others to make a stormwater fee happen.

“You can't have too many people walking down the street and spitting on the sidewalk at the same time. It might flood, right?” he said. “Let's get together. Let's talk about how we do it in a constructive and organized way so that it benefits the city moving forward.”

Two different ordinances and ballot measures would be required for the Water Collaborative’s plan, one creating the new department and the other for the fee itself. The group is pushing for the City Council to propose both of those ordinances this year.

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Eva Tesfaye covers the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at eva@wrkf.org.