One day late in the summer last year, I paused in my walk to the bank to stare at a gaping hole in the sidewalk, where clear water was bubbling from a circular pipe cover. It had filled the gravelly gap in the sidewalk and was flowing into the gutter.
It was a culture shock to watch what was obviously clean water gush out of the sidewalk, then to have a fellow passer-by remark- “Oh yeah, that’ll leak forever.”
“What?” I asked.
“Had something like that on a property I own. Took the city nine months to fix.”
This was a shock for a few reasons. Newly arrived from New York City, I was not yet used to seemingly sane strangers addressing me familiarly while making eye-contact, and I had never heard of a city simply allowing a water main to leak into the street for months on end.
Yet, of course, the land-owning stranger was correct. The leak, which I noticed every time I walked to the Healing Center, took the city months upon months to fix. I had ceased being shocked by its presence by the time the city patched the leak.
“I don’t even think the Sewerage and Water Board really knows how much is lost,” said Dr. Eric Hardy, a historian and professor at Loyola who has written extensively on the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, as well as the water system in Atlanta. He explained that because certain systems, such as schools and hospitals, are not charged or metered for their water use, it is unlikely that the S&WB can track the full rate of consumption and loss. According to the Times Picayune’s reporting, this loss can hit 50 million gallons a day.
For visualization purposes, an Olympic swimming pool can hold 660,000 gallons of water. We’re talking 76 giant swimming pools’ worth of potable water lost every day. What does it mean for a city of only 393,000 people to waste that much water? What does it mean to “lose” treated water?
Not only is water wasted when it leaks from the city’s pipes, but energy is wasted as well. It takes energy to both filter and process water, and to distribute it to the populace; energy that is completely wasted if the water does not reach its destination. The EPA estimates up to 40 percent of a water utility’s costs may be energy. Conversely, when utilities invest in reinforcing pipes and drinking water infrastructure, they are also saving energy, and by extension, preventing greenhouse gas emissions.
Without a basis of comparison, forty percent loss seems abnormally high – and it is. One report of water systems in the US gave the average at 16 percent loss. That’s close to a third of our current waste rate. The report also estimated that it would take $29 billion to fix the issue nationwide.
Hardy explains that in the 1970s, large-scale public works programs including the Clean Water Act injected a lot of money and infrastructure upgrades to municipal water systems. In the 1980s however, spending cuts from the Reagan administration cut off these federal sources of funding, leaving local and state governing bodies to get the costs from… somewhere. It fell to them to increase either water rates or taxes to fund the systems. Both politically unpopular solutions, and part of the reason why waterworks – vital and costly systems, are chronically underfunded.
“This is a poor city. Property taxes have historically been low… all of these feed into the failures of the board, the failure to bring the infrastructure into a state of dire need,” says Terrence Fitzmorris, a professor at Tulane and expert on the early history of the New Orleans S&WB.
“The system dates from the 1920s; to modernize these things takes an enormous amount of money and foresight. Money is often lacking,” continues Fitzmorris.
And the more water leaks out, the more energy goes into the water that makes it to the tap.
“People want water for a very low price, but treating it is anything but,” Hardy says.
Water is often priced at the cost it takes to distribute it, or priced even below that value. It is not priced, at least in the US, as if it were a finite resource, despite serious looming shortages around the country. Not only that, but the price of water does not pay for the maintenance of the infrastructure we use to consume it.
Alarmingly, however, the reverse is also true. Legally there is no cap on the price of water per gallon, because, in the US, it is not a legally protected right, despite being internationally recognized as a human right. If the cost of fixing or maintaining our aging infrastructure were to go to the ratepayer, water rates could increase drastically. Already water costs are on the rise and are projected to increase by 40 percent over the next five years nationally. That would increase the amount of households in the US who struggle to pay their water bill from 11.9 percent to 35.6 percent (in the study referenced here, researchers used the EPA’s benchmark that water and sewage costs should be no more than 4.5 percent of a household’s income. Households that spend more are “water-burdened”. The UN puts the mark at three percent). That’s over a third of US households that would be economically water-burdened. And as New Orleans has an average household income far below the national average, that number could be even higher here, with the brunt of it borne by black families.
When a house’s water is shut off, legally children can be taken away from their parents and put into foster care. In the context of water affordability, the S&WB’s history of committing errors with billing, not to mention the racial history and current practice of removing children of color from their parents, this is terrifying.
While it is true that Southeastern Louisiana does not currently face significant water stress, water availability is projected to lessen as climate change intensifies. Water availability – access to drinkable water – is already a global issue. The non-profit One Billion Thirsty claims that 800 million people worldwide lack adequate clean water for drinking. Worryingly, even without the deleterious effect of climate change on water availability, projected population increases alone will create water shortages.
It is a cruel irony that the City of New Orleans diverts water from the water table by the miles of impervious surfaces – pavement – that cover the ground, causing flooding. Yet beneath the concrete, the S&WB is allowing water that we have invested human and fossil fuel energy into to drain away from the pipes.
In the face of these challenges, one thing is clear: New Orleans cannot afford to keep wasting its water. What remains to be seen is whether this can be done effectively, and without creating a regressive and burdensome tax that would hurt families and small businesses. The City of Philadelphia has implemented a progressive rate system, where residents making 150 percent or less of the federal poverty line will pay rates based on their income that will not exceed 4 percent of household income. Combined with increasing rates for the rest of the population gradually, it’s a smart solution to water pricing and infrastructure needs.
“[The S&WB] started out as such a godsend to the city… it changed the lives of many people for the better, but we cannot be complacent about it. If we want these services to continue, we can’t just give people money. The tax money must be used effectively and efficiently,” says Fitzmorris.
Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Lakota people and activist with the Standing Rock protest movement, had this to say on the importance of water: “When we say “Mni Woc’oni” — Water of Life — people all over the world are now beginning to understand that it is a living spirit: it can heal when you pray with it and die if you do not respect it.”
We as New Orleanians must respect water. L’eau est la vie.
Water is life.
Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Medium.com, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant. If you liked this piece, you should check out Jesse’s other work here.