New Orleans sits at or about six feet below sea level between Lake Ponchartrain, Lake Borgne, the Mississippi River (River) and its tributaries. Because of our geographic orientation, comics have jokingly dubbed New Orleans a bowl surrounded by soup.
As would be expected, water is of considerable interest to New Orleanians. Rain water. Flood waters. Swamp water. Drinking water.
Here in the “Sportsman’s Paradise” we seem to inherently understand that what enters the water supply, including pollution, doesn’t remain in that part of the water way. Rather, it travels, disperses, and touches everything the water touches. In that way, the pollutants threaten the coast, the wildlife, even the quality of drinking water if left unabated. It is the movement of pollutants and the interconnected nature of the waterways which highlight the fact that tributaries, wetlands, and watersheds all have a significant nexus to downstream waters which may be used in fisheries, recreation areas, and drinking water supplies.
It was that very same concern over the interconnectedness that lead groups of vocal advocates – the League of Women Voters of New Orleans, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, the Orleans Audubon Society, and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network – to Washington, DC, in April 1998 to convince the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to intervene. Fast forward to 2015 and we see the Third Modified Consent Decree between the EPA and the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board (SWB) for violations of §301 of the Clean Water Act (CWA).
§301 requires a permit for all discharge from a single identifiable source into waterways, whether intentional or inadvertent. In the 90s, the SWB didn’t have a permit to discharge pollutants into waterways, but what they did have was an old, non-compliant plant discharging pollutants and untreated sewage into Lake Ponchartrain and the River canals. This is how the consent decree came about.
By definition of “consent decree”, SWB admits neither guilt nor liability, but agrees to correct the problems which caused the unpermitted discharge into the waterways. To date, SWB has paid $1.5M total civil penalty to the United States and has spent no less than $2M on the Supplemental Environmental Project (“SEP”) in New Orleans. The goal of the SEP included securing significant water quality improvement and public health protections. Current remedial measures include new pump stations, supervisory control and data acquisition (“scada”) system and remote monitoring, as well as cross connections between sewage and drainage systems. And the work is not yet finished.
Ironically, the consent decree, substantial investments in infrastructure, and extra monitoring through regulations would have made New Orleans’ water some of the safest drinking water in the country. It is this extra security the EPA hopes to provide to 1 in 3 Americans through the new Clean Water Rule, which will improve drinking water conditions nationwide, once it is adopted and operates in full force.