The three massive new pumping stations on New Orleans’ outfall canals will be run by the regional flood protection authority rather than the Sewerage & Water Board, under an agreement between the two agencies that was finalized this week.
The deal, approved unanimously by the boards of both agencies, relieves the struggling S&WB from a major additional responsibility it was supposed to take on next year.
At the same time, officials said, the deal will better integrate the three new stations — which include both pumps and gates designed to prevent storm surge from flooding into the canals — with the overall hurricane risk reduction system that surrounds the New Orleans region.
The pumps are located where the city’s three primary drainage canals — the Orleans Avenue Canal, the London Avenue Canal in Gentilly and the 17th Street Canal between Lakeview and Metairie — meet the lake.
The $693 million stations will replace temporary pumps that have operated on the canals since 2006. After years of delays, the new stations now are on track to be completed early next year.
They are the last major element of the $14.5 billion in post-Hurricane Katrina upgrades to the region’s flood defenses overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Initially, the S&WB — which is responsible for draining water off city streets — was expected to run the stations once they were up and running.
But under the agreement approved this week, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East — which is responsible for the exterior defenses that protect the east bank of the New Orleans area against storm surges — will run the stations when the Corps hands over the keys, with the authority and the S&WB bearing equal shares of the costs.
The S&WB has estimated it would cost about $4 million a year to operate the pumps, including money set aside for major long-term maintenance.
Under the agreement, each of the agencies will be responsible for half those costs, with each putting an additional $500,000 into an account that would be used to cover the extra costs incurred if a storm strikes the area.
“We already maintain a hurricane protection system in the billions of dollars, and our annual budget to do that right now is roughly $50 million a year,” said Derek Boese, the flood authority's chief administrative officer. “We looked at our numbers, and we’re confident we could manage this as well with our current budget and millage that we collect.”
The S&WB has budgeted its share of the money in the 2018 drainage budget that the board of directors passed this week. That budget is funded by property taxes that bring in about $51 million a year. Other drainage operations at the S&WB also saw increases or were held steady in the budget, and it is not clear whether other aspects of the system will see cuts as a result of the new demand on the board's finances.
The Flood Protection Authority will pay its portion of the costs largely out of an 11.67-mill tax it levies on properties on the east bank of the city. That tax provides about $35 million a year for the agency's operations in Orleans Parish.
Because the 17th Street Canal provides drainage for some of the east bank of Jefferson Parish as well, a small portion of the budget will come from the 4.01-mill property tax on Jefferson's east bank that brings in $10 million for the Flood Protection Authority's work there.
The new agreement means the S&WB, already facing challenges with funding its drainage system, will be on the hook for only half of the costs it would otherwise have to bear to run the new pumps.
Transferring the responsibility for the stations to the Flood Protection Authority also could alleviate concerns over whether the S&WB can handle the job, given the damning revelations about the condition of its power plant, pumps and staffing in the wake of an August rainstorm that flooded several parts of the city.
Asked whether that flooding and the subsequent turmoil at the S&WB played a role in the decision to have the Flood Protection Authority run the new stations, Boese said the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which is ultimately responsible for the system built by the Corps, “has indicated that it's something they looked at more after the events in August.”
But, he said, the way the new pumping stations integrate with the rest of the area's exterior hurricane defenses meant that the Flood Protection Authority would have had to take some responsibility for maintenance even without such an agreement.
The pumps occupy a unique place in New Orleans’ drainage and flood protection systems.
During typical rainfalls, the S&WB’s system is supposed to pump water from much of the city into the three outfall canals, which empty into the lake. In those instances, the new pumps are not needed.
The pumping stations would be brought to life during tropical storms, hurricanes and at other times when the water level in the lake rises significantly.
In those instances, gates at the ends of the canals will be shut to prevent water in the lake from flowing back into the canals. When those gates are closed, the pumps then will provide the last step needed to get water out of the city and into the lake.
The three pumping stations will be able to pump a total of about 24,300 cubic feet of water a second, enough to fill the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in about an hour and a half. Their combined capacity is more than that of the West Closure Complex near Harvey, considered to be the largest drainage pumping station in the world.