New Orleans plans $3 million in upgrades to aging water system, with goal to avoid more boil-water advisories _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board.

City officials said Wednesday that they have ramped up efforts to bolster New Orleans’ aging water infrastructure, alarmed by technical glitches that have twice forced residents to boil their tap water in the past nine weeks.

As a first step, the Sewerage & Water Board has started running an additional pump at the Carrollton water treatment plant on internally generated electricity, a move officials hope will help ensure the agency can keep water pressure throughout the system at a safe level. Below a certain threshold, there is a danger that groundwater can leak into the pipes and introduce bacteria.

Over the next six to nine months, the agency will make some $3 million worth of tweaks that officials hope will keep water pressure in the system consistent until more permanent upgrades are in place in 2018.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu called the recent frequency of boil-water advisories “unacceptable.”

Speaking at a Wednesday morning news conference, Landrieu said S&WB officials have been meeting with experts “around the clock” since last week’s advisory, which lasted more than 30 hours, in an effort to come up with short-term solutions and ways to expedite ongoing projects aimed at fixing a system that he said was “beat to death by Katrina.”

The short-term upgrades should give the system the ability to “ride through” brief power outages or fluctuations without allowing water pressure to drop, officials said.

Entergy had recommended in 2011 that the S&WB install equipment that would give it that capacity, but nothing was done.

The S&WB typically has four pumps running at any given time to keep pressure in the system at about 68 pounds per square inch. Two of those pumps have been running on power from Entergy, while the other two are powered by the S&WB’s own power plant or on internally generated steam.

The system is supposed to be able to keep pressure above 15 psi, the threshold that prompts a boil-water advisory, even if two of those pumps stop working.

But power failures that took the pumps offline in separate instances in July and last week suggested that was not the case. In both instances, water pressure at various points in the city fell below 15 psi and residents were told they had to boil tap water for a minute before drinking it.

Under plans announced Wednesday, the S&WB has brought another internally powered pump online to replace one of the Entergy-powered pumps, General Superintendent Joe Becker said. He said that should ensure pressure doesn’t drop too far even if the water plant loses power from Entergy.

The utility also is working to tie its pumps together better so as to improve their ability to keep pressure up, S&WB Executive Director Cedric Grant said.

City Council President Jason Williams, who called last week for a short-term solution to prevent further emergencies, said Wednesday, “There is nothing charming or ‘Old World’ about having boil-water advisories every couple months.”

The utility’s long-term plan involves installing a pair of water towers at its Carrollton plant that would contain enough water to keep the system pressurized for 40 minutes if the pumps go down. Construction on that project will begin next year, after drainage work in the area is complete, and officials estimate it will be done by 2018.

In addition, ongoing upgrades and repairs to the S&WB’s century-old power plant are expected to give the agency the ability to run all its pumps on internally generated power, though that would come at a higher cost than buying electricity from Entergy.

The exact cause of last week’s power outage at the water plant remains unclear. While some residents in Carrollton near the plant lost power at the same time — an issue Entergy said was caused when a metallic balloon hit the electrical lines — the company has said its sensors showed that two lines feeding the plant continued to operate within normal parameters.

Officials at the S&WB had blamed Entergy for the outage last week, but they said Wednesday that they are focused on improvements to the water plant.

“I want to get out of the business of pointing fingers,” Landrieu said.

Given that Entergy’s sensors showed the power supply was adequate, Becker said, “We have to find ways to operate within those parameters.”

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