New Orleans’ drinking water supply remains at risk
Even through the saltwater threat has passed, its river intakes are vulnerable to accidents.
NEW ORLEANS (Louisiana Illuminator) - Forecasts for saltwater intrusion along the lower Mississippi River have grown more encouraging. While plans are in motion to safeguard the water supply from excess salt, the slow-motion crisis has raised public awareness of the various water intakes along the river.
The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans has four such intake structures, two on each riverbank. A Louisiana Illuminator review of public records has found dangerous flaws in the intakes have been allowed to linger for several years.
One in Algiers has been out of service for at least 34 years, and the sole remaining west bank inlet has routinely had barges — some containing oil and chemicals — lashed to it over the past decades. Meanwhile, both east bank intake protection structures have remained unrepaired since tanker ships struck them in 2016 and again in 2021, when the 2016 damage had yet to be fixed.
S&WB spokesperson Grace Birch said in an email projects such as the east bank intake protection repairs have been deferred due to lack of funding.
“We are at a critical point with nearly a billion dollars in capital improvement projects slated for the next five years that are 93% unfunded,” Birch said. “We have scoured every source of City, State and Federal funding, but our customers must know that these are one-time sources that are not sustainable, and we are looking at long-term plans for capital projects, especially as it relates to water treatment and distribution.”
Yet the Sewerage and Water Board’s own documents blame delays in fixing its east bank intake structures not on lack of funding, but on extended legal processes. The utility also set itself back 18 months over 2016 and 2017 when it hired an engineering firm for the project that later withdrew.
Algiers water supply without redundancy
New Orleans’ east and west bank water systems are separate from each other. Each has a pair of theoretically redundant river intakes — simple arrangements of pipes in the river and pump stations to draw the raw water — to supply their respective purification plants.
On the west bank, Algiers Intake Stations 1 and 2 are just downstream of the Crescent City Connection. Station 1, where Brooklyn Avenue meets DeArmas Street on the riverfront, is the downstream inlet. Station 2, a few hundred feet away at Socrates Street, is the upstream inlet station. Both feed common underground mains to the Algiers Water Plant a few blocks away.
Unknown to the public but well known among S&WB leadership and employees, Algiers Intake Station 2 has not run — according to spokesperson Rachel Haney — since 1989, creating a perilous situation well before the saltwater wedge threatened from downriver. If an accident or breakdown were to put the remaining intake out of service, New Orleans’ entire west bank — population 50,600 and manyfold businesses — could be out of water within 24 hours.
Intake outage mentions subtle, then explicit
Evidence of a long-term outage at Algiers Intake Station 2 is scattered among a variety of publicly available reports and documents on the Sewerage and Water Board’s website.
“The raw water pumping and piping systems need to be improved to provide redundancy to the intake system,” reads a line from the S&WB’s annual “Report on Operations” for 2012, the earliest mention of issues with the west bank’s water source.
The same sentence was included verbatim in the Sewerage and Water Board’s next six operations reports, most recently in the 2018 edition that wasn’t made public until March 2020.
“No work in 2018 was conducted to address this concern,” the report reads. “The SWB Engineering Department is specifying new pumps at Old River Intake (No. 2) at Algiers.”
After the 2018 edition, the annual operations reports were no longer published. The four-year, $348,000 contract with Black & Veatch, the consulting firm that wrote them, ended that year and was not renewed or replaced for reasons that are unclear. However, the ongoing outage at Algiers Intake 2 could be traced through other reports.
The Sewerage and Water Board’s 10-year capital plan from 2014, the first issued publicly, included a project titled: “Replacement of the Raw Water Pumps at Algiers River Station No. 2.”
“The current pumps are undersized for the demand,” the project’s description read. “New larger pumps will provide redundant raw water pumping capacity should the intake Algiers Station #1 be damaged,” acknowledging the risk to the city’s west bank with only a single intake available.
The $1.1 million project was planned for completion by 2015. But more than 100 other projects were determined to be higher priorities that year, so no work was done.
As with dozens of budgeted but unfunded projects on the board’s books, the Algiers Intake Station 2 pump project appeared in a list of construction projects issued over the next four years, each time being pushed off into the following year’s plans because no work had occurred.
It was not in the Sewerage and Water Board’s 2019 capital plan, and no long-range construction lists were issued in 2020 or 2021. It reappeared in the 2021 budget, which called for $240,000 for upgrades to Algiers Station 2, likely representing only engineering expenses. As before, the project was pushed off, showing up in the 2022 10-year capital plan with a hope for $1.24 million in 2023 spending, which does not appear to have been allocated.
In responses to emailed questions from The Illuminator, Haney said the project indeed remains in the agency’s capital spending plans but added it was “not necessary for our current, routine daily operations.”
Haney also supplied some history of Algiers Intake Station 2, saying it was last run in 1989. She also said it was placed out of service when Intake Station 1 was upgraded with larger pipes and pumps, which confirms the Intake 2 upgrade project description in the 2014 capital plan.
Archive technical drawings of the Intake 1 upgrade project — released as part of the agency’s bid package for their temporary saltwater wedge mitigation project — are dated from 1984 to 1986, placing the project in the same time period as the 1989 construction date Haney cited.
Insurer warns of danger
Outside experts have also made the Sewerage and Water Board aware of the risk its west bank water supply faces.
In 2016, the public utility commissioned insurance giant Swiss Re for a study on the resilience of its facilities in the face of major hazard events, with a concentration on rain storms and hurricanes.
Among those facilities was Algiers Intake Station 1. The report revealed the number of pumps inside the station: three, each capable of pumping 15 million gallons of river water per day.
The report told more, though, in what it omitted: Any mention of Algiers Intake Station 2, confirming it was out of service at the time of the report’s preparation. Swiss Re actually noted the lack of redundancy in only having one intake functional, saying if it was shut down, Algiers would lose water in a day.
That one-day figure comes from the amount of drinking water kept in reserve tanks at the Algiers Water Plant. Sewerage and Water Board records show there are two 5 million gallon tanks. The plant produces approximately 10 million to 15 million gallons of drinking water per day.
A July 2008 Sewerage and Water Board press release issued when a fuel spill on the river threatened the intakes, forcing their temporary closure, warned the west bank of the single-day water supply.
The 24 hours of reserve supply actually significantly exceeds that of other nearby water systems. According to a spokesperson, Jefferson Parish’s east bank system holds only six hours of backup drinking water, and the Jefferson Parish west bank system has just five hours.
The Algiers Intake Station 2 outage appears to have continued into 2023. GPS records of Sewerage and Water Board staff tasked with taking samples of the raw water entering the west bank system from February through June show consistent daily visits to Algiers Intake Station 1, but there are no corresponding visits at all to Station 2.
Employees acknowledge one working west bank intake
Until the Sewerage and Water Board’s confirmation of the Algiers Intake 2 outage in response to questions, the most conclusive proof of the lack of water supply redundancy on the west bank — and especially board employees’ knowledge of it — came from the minutes of Sewerage and Water Board staff meetings in January and February.
As part of a quickly halted effort to raise water and sewer rates, the Sewerage and Water Board planned to hold public engagement sessions around the city to take the pulse of customers. First, they tested the meeting formats on their own staff across four days. Part of the meetings used tabletop exercises to gather opinions from the employees of what the board’s spending priorities should be.
At the meeting for employees at the Algiers Water Plant, two of three groups named the restoration of Algiers Intake Station 2 as one of their priorities.
“Only one intake for all of Algiers, 2nd is not operational,” one employee wrote in their suggestion. “Only have one intake on Westbank that works,” another employee wrote.
In a post-meeting wrap-up, when employees were surveyed about their experience during the exercise, an employee noted “Algiers intake river no. 2 to put in service” as a concern.
Intakes struck before, leaving east bank ‘exposed’
The danger of intakes being struck by river traffic, which places the single working Algiers station in such a precarious position, is well known to the Sewerage and Water Board.
Twice since 2016, its east bank intakes have been struck in allisions, the maritime term for crashes between a vessel and a stationary object. Those strikes have left the Board’s water supply “exposed,” according to S&WB engineer Chris Bergeron. Were the east bank plant to lose both intakes, the city has about six hours of drinking water in reserve.
On the east bank, the two intake stations are at the Orleans/Jefferson parish line. The Oak Street station, also known as the “Old River” station, is just inside Orleans Parish, while the Industrial Street station, also known as the “New River” station, sits upstream in Jefferson. Unlike the west bank, each east bank intake station has enough pumping capacity to supply its entire system.
In February 2016, high river levels and a fast current caused the oil tanker Nordbay to hit both intakes and, an hour later, the Mandeville Street Wharf in Bywater. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the likely cause was the ship’s master and the river pilot “not adequately assessing the risks of handling the ballasted vessel during high-river conditions with strong following currents while turning into the wind.”
The intake pipes were unharmed, but the tanker severely damaged the protective pilings called dolphins in front of the pipes, leading the Sewerage and Water Board to temporarily place barges in front of the intake structures and secure them into the riverbed with long steel rods known as spuds.
In March 2021, the tanker Bow Tribute hit the spud barges in front of the intakes while traveling downstream. The NTSB attributed the crash to the river pilot’s poor decision to overtake a towboat also traveling downstream. The attempt failed, and the Bow Tribute briefly ran aground before striking both east bank intakes.
When the Bow Tribute hit the intakes in 2021, the Sewerage and Water Board had not yet repaired the damage to the protective dolphins from the 2016 strikes. The barge at the New River intake broke loose, further damaging the dolphins as well as a protective bar screen just yards from the intake pipes.
The strike at the Old River intake 1,500 feet downstream took out a catwalk damaged during the 2016 allision and further broke the dolphins at that location. The New River spud barge suffered an enormous dent in its side, damage still visible today.
Luckily, the pipes at each intake were not damaged and continued functioning. But repairs have still not been made to the intakes, over seven years after the first allisions.
The extended delays in fixing the east bank intakes after the 2016 Nordbay allisions parallel the Sewerage and Water Board’s lack of attention to the long-term outage of Algiers Intake Station 2. It took more than 18 months after the first east bank crash for the board to bring on the engineering firm Neel-Schaffer to design repairs to the dolphins. The board also tasked the firm to include measures to make the intakes’ protection more robust, an admission it was not as strong as it needed to be.
But other than paying $1.1 million in engineering fees — including five amendments to Neel-Schaffer’s 2017 contract, three of which came before the board in 2021, 2022, and this year — no work toward fixing the damaged intake protection took place in the ensuing years. Even the engineering work remains incomplete. According to S&WB General Superintendent Ron Spooner, Neel-Schaffer has completed more than 90% of its design work, and its most recent contract extension calls for work through November 2024.
The lack of urgency was demonstrated further in a four-year delay by S&WB staff in alerting its board of directors to undisclosed spending since the 2016 allisions. In June 2020, the Sewerage and Water Board issued an emergency declaration, something it forgot to do at the time of the crashes, to publicly account for the $1 million it had paid Metairie maritime repair company Durward Dunn for providing rental barges at both east bank intakes since 2016.
At the 2020 meeting announcing the declaration, S&WB engineer Chris Bergeron said the 2016 crashes “left us exposed.” Notably, board leadership was more prompt following the 2021 Bow Tribute allisions, issuing an emergency declaration the following day.
Based on the pace of spending acknowledged in the 2020 emergency declaration, the total amount spent on rental barges since 2016 likely now exceeds $2 million.
The Sewerage and Water Board agreed to a $2.5 million settlement from the Nordbay incident in 2020. But despite the pair of emergency declarations, repairs have not been made, and barges remain spudded to the riverbed in front of each unrepaired east bank intake structure.
Barges at west bank intake possibly hold chemicals
New Orleans’ west bank river intakes also appear less robustly protected from damage by passing vessels. As the 2021 east bank allisions demonstrated, barges can end up doing even more damage and are not intended to be permanent protection.
Nonetheless, annual and post-hurricane aerial images in the Orleans Parish Assessor online archives show a string of barges berthed in front of Algiers Intake Station 1, secured to the pipe-style dolphins there, since at least 2004. The recently released archive drawings of the 1980′s Algiers Intake 1 upgrades also show barges moored in front of the west bank intakes nearly 40 years ago.
The approximately 15 barges moored there are a semi-permanent facility owned and operated by The Zito Companies, a private local business with numerous maritime repair and cargo operations under its umbrella. The Algiers location is used for barge “fleeting,” where barges are lashed together to allow for more efficient transport by towboats along the river. The barges moored directly in front of the intake — in fact, tied to the intake’s dolphins — act as a dock or fender against which other barges can be staged for fleeting.
According to publicly available documents and local sources, most of the business at Zito’s Algiers facility is supplied by national barging company Ingram Barges, which moves cargo along multiple river basins throughout the U.S. Their website prominently advertises not only their ability to handle dry cargo like grain, but also liquid cargo like oil and chemicals. Ingram lists over 370 liquid-carrying barges in their fleet, and their Facebook page includes a photo of 56 barges fleeted together just downstream from the Algiers intake.
The Louisiana Department of Health (LDH), in a 2010 inspection of S&WB facilities, noted the unknown contents of the barges as a possible hazard should one spill. It recommended the Sewerage and Water Board reach a formal cargo restriction agreement with the company berthing the barges near the intake. It is unclear if such an agreement was ever signed.
The moored barges were removed from the front of the Algiers intake earlier this year, but that appears to only be temporary. Sources within the local cargo hauling community indicate they were taken away because of low river levels and low cargo demand, but they should return next spring with higher waters resulting from northern rains and snowmelt.
State oversight questions
The Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) has oversight over the construction and use of all parts of public drinking water systems in the state, including intake structures. The department conducts inspections of each system every three years, known as “sanitary surveys.”
In an email response, LDH spokesperson Kevin Litten said intakes “are assessed during the sanitary survey for susceptibility for damage and accessibility.” Litten gave examples of questions an LDH inspector might ask about intakes, such as whether the intake pump house is protected from allisions by placement of dolphins and fenders, or if an intake has a screen to keep out fish or debris.
A review of all sanitary surveys for New Orleans’ east and west bank water systems dating back to 2010, obtained by request from the state health department, found only one mention of intakes besides the 2010 LDH request to sign an agreement restricting dangerous cargo in the barges being fleeted at the Algiers intake. In the 2017 inspection of the east bank system, conducted over a year after strikes to both intakes by the Nordbay, state health officials recommended the damage be repaired, noting the intakes were protected by barges.
Despite the damage remaining unrepaired — as well as the continued placement of barges at each intake — at the time of LDH’s subsequent east bank inspections in 2019 and 2022, there were no reminder recommendations of the need for repairs. This was particularly notable in the 2022 inspection, because the intakes had been struck a second time the year before by the Bow Tribute. The damage to the dolphins was — and remains — quite extensive.
Four LDH sanitary surveys of the west bank system since the 2010 inspection did not raise the mooring of barges directly to the Algiers intake dolphins as an issue, in spite of the fact the dolphins are intended as protective structures, not as docking facilities, and thus might not be as effective for their primary use after decades of stress in service to private industry. The potentially hazardous nature of the barges’ contents also did not merit a follow-up since 2010.
Jefferson intakes in ‘great condition,’ St. Bernard supply at risk
Like New Orleans, Jefferson Parish has two intakes each for its independent east bank and west bank drinking water systems. On the east bank, the two intakes are next to each other and behind a common set of concrete-filled dolphins. On the west bank, a newer intake is also behind concrete dolphins, while an older intake just downstream has piling dolphins.
In response to emailed questions, Jefferson Parish spokesperson Gretchen Hirt Gendron said that all of its drinking water intakes “are in great condition.” None have barges in front of them. Hirt noted that the intakes on the east bank received a $6 million rehabilitation in 2022.
St. Bernard Parish is in comparable straits to Algiers, with just a single intake available for years. The parish has two intakes at the end of a structure jutting out into the river. One intake, labeled “high,” draws river water from a depth of 7 feet below the surface, while the “low” intake pulls water from 29 feet deeper.
In response to emailed questions, Ralph Hosch Jr., superintendent of quality control and compliance in St. Bernard’s Water and Sewer Division, said the “low” intake was taken out of service in 2018 by a vessel strike. Scattered mentions in publicly available Parish documents refer to intentions to repair a dolphin at the intake, including receipt of $1.4 million in insurance proceeds in 2019, a 2020 consulting firm design contract and a 2022 budget amendment moving $500,000 into the Water & Sewer Division to perform dolphin repairs.
According to Hosch, the “low” intake remains non-functional today, leaving St. Bernard Parish with a single intake for its drinking water. Should that “high” intake be taken out, Hosch said the parish would have about a day and a half of water, running at reduced pressures.
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