Even a new $80 million water tower couldn't help the Sewerage & Water Board's hobbled workforce keep water pressure from briefly dropping so low over the weekend that hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians were advised to boil their tap water before consuming it, officials said Monday.
Their work was also frustrated by Saturday's cold weather, which sidelined the agency's main power source for its water system.
Officials gave a detailed explanation Monday of what caused the 27-hour boil-water advisory, which had to be issued even after the first of two new 200-foot water towers at the S&WB's Carrollton plant went into service last week.
They said the tower project, which was designed to prevent drops in pressure and boil-water orders, worked as intended this weekend. But an S&WB "operator error," a sidelined turbine and an Entergy power outage necessitated an advisory despite that extra benefit.
WWL-TV reported that a single operator was tasked with fixing the problem and had to run between two buildings to do so, a claim the S&WB disputed.
“Had we been able to do the (work) within the 20 minutes that the tower was working, we would have been all fine,” S&WB Executive Director Ghassan Korban said. “Unfortunately it took us longer. Why it took us longer, that’s what I need to find out.”
The episode shines a light on the embattled agency's need for better "redundancies," or back-up power sources and other resources it can rely on when a first line of defense fails.
The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board denied reports on Monday afternoon that only one employee was left to fix a number of power and pump …
Officials have been scrambling to restructure the agency after a deluge in August 2017 exposed deficiencies in equipment and staffing in its drainage system.
State Health Department guidelines call upon parishes to issue boil-water advisories whenever municipal water pressure drops below 20 pounds per square inch, potentially allowing contaminants to enter the system. Even after parishes have fixed the problems causing the pressure drop, they must send in samples of their water for the Health Department to test, a process that takes up to a day.
The boil-water advisory, issued early Saturday for the city's entire east bank and lifted at 10 a.m. Sunday, created hiccups on a particularly busy New Orleans weekend. The Saints were playing the Philadelphia Eagles in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday afternoon; stadium managers were scrambling ahead of time to gather enough bottled water and other drinks for tens of thousands of fans.
Other residents and businesses also began preparations that by now feel routine. The city has had repeated boil-water advisories in recent years, though the water towers were supposed to help end the need for such measures.
The two million gallons of water those towers hold can be slowly released to shore up water pressure after a power outage and give crews extra time to fix the problem. If caught in time, a boil-water advisory need never be issued.
One of those towers entered service just last week and "did exactly what it was supposed to do," Korban said. While the towers are expected to give crews an extra 40 minutes to address a problem when the second tower is completed in the spring, the one that is online now gave the agency 20 extra minutes Saturday, more time than it has had in recent years during similar events.
But the S&WB staff couldn’t find a quick remedy after Entergy’s power source to a Panola Street station pump was compromised, Korban said.
For one thing, they didn't have the usual tools in their tool belt. They were using Entergy power instead of their own 60-cycle gas-fired turbine, Turbine 6, which usually powers the water and sewerage systems.
That $31 million turbine, completed in 2016, apparently can be operated only when temperatures are above 45 degrees — and early Saturday morning, it was about 40 degrees. The problem, not publicized until Monday, has officials brainstorming solutions. No further information was given about why the turbine has to be taken out of commission in cold weather.
"Obviously, that's something we are going to pursue ... to (allow) that turbine to be used 365 days," Korban said. "But that's a project that's pending and hasn't been implemented."
Then, when crews tried rerouting power from the board's Claiborne Avenue station to the Panola Street station to restart a nonworking pump, they tripped a 60-cycle main breaker at the Claiborne Avenue station, causing a Claiborne Avenue pump to go down as well.
The S&WB crews tried to get the Claiborne pump back online. But due to "operator error," the water tower was completely depleted before that happened, officials said.
WWL-TV reported that a pumping plant operator at the Claiborne Avenue station was already dealing with the tripped power breaker when the pump went out, a claim that would suggest a need for more staff. But agency spokesman Curtis Elmore said there were other qualified staffers on hand to assist with the problem at the large Carrollton water purification and distribution plant.
The agency has struggled to fill critical positions in recent years, a problem that has been compounded as experienced staffers retire or are lured away by higher-paying private sector jobs.
With pressure below 20 psi — and as low as 7 psi in some areas — the agency put out a boil-water advisory alert. It was able to restore pressure shortly after it dropped below the threshold, but it issued the advisory as a precaution, as called for by state regulations.
Samples of the city’s water were shipped to the state Health Department, where they incubated for at least 18 hours before they were declared safe.
Korban said he is trying to figure out if more training for his crews is needed, or if some other remedy is required. But he also pointed to the need for Entergy "to continue to harden their infrastructure and their system," so that his agency "can diminish our reliance on our power."
Officials released this timeline of the event:
- At 4:17 a.m., Carrollton Water Plant pump B (steam pump), Panola Station pump No. 2 (60 Hz), Claiborne Station pump No. 4 (25 Hz) and Claiborne Station pump No. 2 (60 Hz) were operating normally. Additionally, Claiborne Station pump No. 3 was operating on standby.
- At 4:18 a.m., an Entergy pole was "compromised" near the Carrollton Water Plant in the 8700 block of S. Claiborne Avenue, which caused a loss of power to Panola Station pump No. 2 due to an Entergy feeder being out of service. Following this loss of power, the Carrollton water tower began stabilizing the system.
- At 4:24 a.m., Claiborne Station pump No. 3 (60 Hz) was brought on line. Shortly thereafter, S&WB officials contacted Entergy to understand the status of the situation and the length of time needed for power to be restored.
- At 6:19 a.m., the 60-cycle main breaker at the Claiborne Station tripped, causing the S&WB to lose two pumps. Following this loss of power, the Carrollton water tower stabilized the system for about 20 minutes.
- At approximately 6:42 a.m., the water tower was depleted before an additional pump was brought on line, causing a drop in system pressure at various locations across the east bank of New Orleans. The lowest system pressure reported was 7 psi. Prior to depletion, officials attempted to bring Claiborne Station pump No. 1 on line. However, due to "operator error," the pump was unable to come on line.
- Approximately 2-3 minutes after the system pressure dropped below 20 psi, Claiborne Station pump No. 1 was brought on line and the main breaker was corrected, bringing Claiborne pumps Nos. 2 & 3 on line.
- At 6:50 a.m., this system restored pressure above 20 psi.
Editor's note, 11/19/18: An earlier version of this story said water samples incubated for 24 hours; in fact, they must incubate for up to 24 hours and in this case incubated for 18.