Last week's news that the New Orleans Office of Inspector General (OIG) would begin monitoring contractor performance in catch basin cleaning was welcome. The Department of Public Works (DPW), which is responsible for clearing catch basins, clearly needs a watchdog in that role — having failed miserably to clean the basins after the City Council appropriated several million dollars for that purpose last year. While the OIG's involvement is a good sign, it's just the first of many steps that need to be taken if New Orleanians are to have faith that their streets won't flood due to negligence.
Residents, of course, can do their part by removing debris that blocks water flow to the basins. In the long run, that will make it easier for the city to remove accumulated muck inside the basins with vacuum trucks. The problem is that New Orleans has more than 68,000 catch basins, and DPW currently has the resources to clean approximately 3,500 of them a year — which amounts to cleaning each basin once every 19 years or so. Obviously that's not good enough.
Another problem is that the responsibility for overall drainage is split between the DPW and the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board (S&WB), whose troubles don't need explaining. In addition to catch basin clearing, the DPW also has the task of maintaining more than 8 million linear feet of drainage lines. Larger drainage lines are maintained by the S&WB.
A debate is now underway about best practices for the S&WB, which once had City Council members on its board. While few if any of the mayoral and City Council candidates in the current election have indicated they'd like to see the S&WB privatized (and we agree that's a bad idea), other ideas include making the S&WB a city department, restoring council members to the board and perhaps adding a state senator and state representative to the panel. The S&WB was created by the state, and New Orleans drainage affects people in neighboring parishes as well.
One idea stands out to us: Put all drainage responsibility under one agency, and put that agency in City Hall to make it more accountable and transparent. The DPW also is responsible for potholes, sidewalks, streetlights and other infrastructure, while the S&WB has responsibility for the city's water system, sewage treatment system and (partially, at least) drainage. If the next mayor and council — along with voters and state lawmakers — agree to put all drainage responsibilities under one city department, it makes sense to put catch basins there as well.
Whatever the fate of the troubled S&WB, there must be clear, transparent accountability for what's getting done — and what's not. In the short term, the City Council should demand real-time numbers on catch basin cleaning efforts, including addresses. The technology already exists to put that information online and in a smartphone app. Publicizing the current state of catch basin cleaning, and letting neighbors spot-check the work, would be another excellent way to engage citizens in the city's long-term water management efforts.
Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans/Creative Commons