When a wedge of salt water worked its way up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico this fall and threatened to overrun the New Orleans public waterworks, it was not the first time the city faced a drinking water crisis in recent years.
The Crescent City’s aging water system is full of lead pipes, contributing to elevated lead levels in the water in this predominantly Black community. The four water intake points that draw from the flow of the Mississippi River all lie in various states of disrepair. One intake has doubled as a mooring for barges loaded with oil and other chemicals for much of the past decade. Another is out of service altogether — and has been for 34 years.
To help bolster the flagging water system, New Orleans needs money, and lots of it — in total, the system needs nearly $1 billion in capital improvements.
Last year, the city sought $32.7 million in funding from state bonds to help build a new power plant for the Sewerage and Water Board, which would give the water system new pumping power not only for drawing water into the system from the Mississippi, but to help draw down floodwater after storms too.
But the city faces a big roadblock to getting that money: Jeff Landry, the Republican attorney general who last month was elected to be Louisiana’s next governor.
Landry, a staunch conservative, not only doesn’t believe in climate change, but is also vehemently anti-abortion. As attorney general, he petitioned the state bond board last July to block the city from receiving any public funds to fix its water system after New Orleans officials said they would not use city resources to prosecute abortion cases, according to Essence.
“It is my belief that a parish or municipality should not benefit from the hard-working taxpayers of this State while ignoring laws validly enacted by the people through their representatives,” he wrote in a letter to the board.
At the time, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell accused Landry of playing politics. “By politicizing an essentially technical process, the Attorney General demonstrates he would rather score cheap political points on the backs of women than govern — residents and the business community just are not top priorities,” she said in a statement to the Louisiana Illuminator.
The politics did work for Landry, however, who unexpectedly won more than 50% of the vote in the first ballot of what is usually a two-round election system. He’ll replace Democrat John Bel Edwards, who was not able to run again due to term limits.
While Landry and Bel Edwards both support criminalizing abortion in Louisiana (Bel Edwards signed a ban on abortions in nearly all circumstances into law last year), there are significant differences between the two men when it comes to questions of climate and the environment.
Bel Edwards enacted policies aimed at reducing emissions and limiting Louisiana’s dramatic coastal erosion, but Governor-elect Landry didn’t include a single scientist or conservationist on his “coast and environment” transition council. Instead, the council is stacked with petrochemical company lawyers and construction business owners, although it does include some local officials from parts of the state that are routinely flooded.
The thing about being a climate-denying governor in a state like Louisiana is that climate-related disasters will continue to happen, regardless of Landry’s politics or policies. Climate change affects public infrastructure — after all, the saltwater wedge was a result of a drought that reduced water flows on the river.
It’s easier for politicians to stand against perceived political issues like reproductive rights or climate justice than it is to fight against fresh water, even if all of them are vital. And yet Landry seems more than fine with limiting all three — which doesn’t bode well for Louisiana.