When the Levee Breaks

How the water and wastewater industry is helping the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region rebound from Hurricane Katrina

The flood-related consequences following Hurricane Katrina have had a devastating impact on water and wastewater operations in the city of New Orleans as well as the Gulf Coast region.

Accordingly, these events generated a number of inquiries from water and wastewater professionals to the Water & Wastes Digest editorial offices.
Specifically, most of the questions centered on what the industry is doing to help the flooded areas; how tainted is the flood water; what impact will the flood water have on the water infrastructure; are the water/wastewater plants operating; and how much money may be needed in the affected areas to help the Gulf Coast water/wastewater industry rebound from the consuming flood?

In this article, Water & Wastes Digest will address these questions and provide an overview of the solutions needed to get the New Orleans and Gulf Coast area’s water/wastewater infrastructure back online.

Industry response

First, much like the days and weeks following the tsunami that struck southern Asia in December 2004, the water/wastewater industry stepped to the forefront in the relief efforts. A few examples:

  • ITT pledged $250,000 and offered dewatering pumps, reverse osmosis systems, chlorination and UV disinfection equipment;
  • Ecoloclean Industries, Inc. provided a mobile water purification system to the Biloxi (Miss.) Community Center;
  • Thompson Pump sent an Emergency Response Team to provide pumping equipment, supplies and manpower to the New Orleans and coastal Mississippi areas; and
  • Rain for Rent’s Strategic Emergency Response Team supplied submersible pumps and tanks.

Government response and water testing

Shortly after the extent of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina was realized, numerous response teams were deployed by the EPA to assess utility and infrastructure damage and organize repair and restoration efforts. These efforts included water quality monitoring to ensure the safety of restored water services.
EPA teams were investigating environmental contamination in the afflicted areas, including the contamination of drinking water sources and floodwaters. Shortly before press time, the EPA reported that initial samplings showed floodwaters contained E.coli and lead levels exceeding the recommended levels for human contact.

Accordingly, the Alabama Department of Environment Management (ADEM) deployed teams of engineers and scientists throughout the Gulf Coast to help coordinate with public water and wastewater systems that have been impacted by the hurricane.

As of press time, ADEM was providing assessment and technical assistance to water systems in an effort to maintain safe drinking water supplies.

Impact on infrastructure

Currently, New Orleans and many of the other Gulf Coast areas will not be habitable by normal population levels until there is a functioning water infrastructure. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that it expects to get the water system running by the end of November.

However, with the high levels of E.coli, lead, along with elevated levels of arsenic and chromium inundating the area’s infrastructure, all of the pipes need to be sanitized and proven safe so drinking water may be supplied. With thousands of miles of pipe, there is no telling how or when the pipes may be determined safe to transport drinking water again.

“You’ve got thousands of miles of pipe, you almost have to go to everybody’s sink or house,” said Kim Mastalio, an executive at Black & Veatch, in a New York Times report. “The process can be overwhelming.”

Additionally, there are countless breaks in the water pipes caused by uprooted trees that need to be repaired before the system-wide disinfection may begin.

New Orleans water plant slowed, but operating

According to a report from AWWA, the New Orleans Water Treatment Plant (NOWTP), a 220-mgd filtration plant that taps the Mississippi River, was completely flooded and inoperable in the days following the hurricane. Approximately a week after the flooding, the NOWTP was on the rebound and able to provide enough water pressure to pump non-potable water used by the New Orleans fire departments, according to Dan Broussard, the manager of operations for the Lafayette (La.) Utilities Systems.

Other water plants in the Gulf Coast region faced comparable problems. The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board reported one of their facilities, the East Bank’s Carrollton Water Treatment Plant, successfully completed the first full restart of the plant since it opened in 1906. Battling various problems, including a fire, Carrollton Plant employees managed to restart the steam-generated boilers—a task not as simple as it may sound. Following two efforts over two days, a third attempt found the plant with enough power to run the pumps and draw water from the river for treatment. The plant was drawing 90 mgd in the days shortly after the hurricane. The water was not good enough to drink, but plant officials felt that day was not far away.

The same could not be said for more than 500 sewage treatment plants around the affected area. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, more than 500 sewage treatment systems were rendered inoperable, reported damaged or were struggling to operate as of WWD press time in early September. These facilities included 25 large and 35 intermediate-sized wastewater facilities.

In Mississippi, widespread destruction of water and wastewater facilities has been reported.

All told, the EPA reported the hurricane damaged approximately 1,000 water-related systems and 123 wastewater systems.

Funding for rehabilitation

Recently, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), together with the EPA, estimated that the environmental costs of Katrina in 31 parishes around New Orleans could reach $61.5 billion.

While the estimate is preliminary, it represents the current thinking of state and federal regulators based on field assessments of the damage. This estimate includes repair of wastewater infrastructure and clean up of toxic debris, plus assessment of water quality.

It does not include repair of drinking water infrastructure, which is regulated separately.

The largest item is restoration of the area’s wastewater treatment plants and infrastructure, at $35 billion. The LDEQ believes it will need to rebuild 50% of the existing treatment plants. According to LDEQ data, there are 25 major wastewater treatment plants that discharge to the Mississippi River and another 32 major systems that discharge to inland waters, which require even higher levels of advanced wastewater treatment. The LDEQ believes that about 20% of wastewater collection systems may also be impacted.

Getting water/wastewater plants back online

According to the EPA, regional staff is participating in a multi-agency effort in collaboration with the states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to evaluate their water systems.

Initial focus has been on establishing contact with the utilities to determine if they are operational, how they are operating, and whether or not they have issued a boil water notice.

As of press time, communication with many of the water plants had not yet been made. Once communication is established, however, detailed assessments may take at least another month to include overviews of source water quality changes, impacts on treatment and the need for additional treatment equipment.

In order to get a drinking water facility back online, the EPA recommended the utilities identify and take corrective actions to repair distribution systems and treatment plants. Specific activities to bring the individual water plants back online depend on the extent of damage to the facilities. In some cases, treatment plant restorations, whether full or partial, may take many months, according to the EPA.
As for the plants that are operating, biotoxicity testing indicates that nearly all samples from canal water pump stations and from Lake Pontchartrain show no toxic effects, according to Rodney Mallett, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

“Most impacts seen thus far have been a result of the hurricane and not a result of pumping down floodwaters,” Mallett said.

The wastewater plants in the Gulf Coast areas face a different story. Teams that include staff from the states, EPA and other agencies are currently working to evaluate the status of the wastewater plants.

While initial site assessments have been prioritized to focus on drinking water systems, the wastewater site assessments have been limited. Additional staff and amenities such as lodging and fuel are needed before the wastewater site assessments increase.

Besides the physical inspections, communication with the wastewater plant operators and owners to find out their needs is necessary. These needs are expected to be centered primarily on generators, pumps and chemicals.
Additionally, power is needed to bring the wastewater plants back online. Assessors will then be able to visit the wastewater plants in order to find out what else needs to be done to restore wastewater treatment.

Unfortunately, much like the water plants, specific activities to bring the individual wastewater plants back online depends on the extent of damage—in some cases, this could also take months.

Tim Gregorski is editorial director for Water & Wastes Digest. He can be reached at 847/391-1011 or by e-mail at tgregorski@sgcmail.com.

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