NEW ORLEANS — The year was 1919.
The rotary telephone hit the market, the Grand Canyon became a national park, prohibition was the law of the land and most of the pipes under New Orleans’ streets were brand new.
Fast-forward a century later, and they’re crumbling.
“Some days the idea of having a one-way ticket back to Milwaukee does cross my mind,” Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban joked Tuesday during a speech before a Bureau of Governmental Research breakfast.
Korban, who previously led Milwaukee’s public works department, has a major task ahead of him in New Orleans trying to replace not only those pipes, but other antique equipment the agency has used since your grandparents or great-grandparents were children.
The age of the equipment -- and the problems that come with that age -- came into sharp focus after the Aug. 5, 2017, floods.
Emergency repairs led to the agency almost drowning in red ink.
“It became evident we were heading into bankruptcy,” Korban said. “There were no questions about it.”
But now, the S&WB is about to get $50 million to help pay off its backlog of bills. And, Korban said, the time has come to get rid of century-old, steam-powered turbines that were once state-of-the-art machines that are now blamed for many of the recent floods and boil-water advisories.
“We can no longer continue to invest in these machines. … I have to tell you, coming from Milwaukee, I never heard of boil-water advisories until I got here,” he said, drawing a laugh from the crowd. “I say that not really to get a chuckle, I swear. It’s real.”
Also real: the cost of running the drainage system.
Not a penny of a customer’s S&WB bill goes toward that. Instead, drainage is paid by property taxes, something the Orleans Parish Assessor's Office estimates 40 percent of properties in the city are exempt from paying.
“I think the stormwater collection fee is an inevitable conversation,” Korban said.
That means that all S&WB customers could in the not-too-distant-future pay a new drainage fee.
“Without a stormwater management fee, we cannot move forward in any meaningful or significant way,” Korban said.