Fix the pumps

Friday, January 07, 2011

West Bank facing pumping shortfalls in 2011

UPPEST-DATE - August 28, 2012 - All 11 pumps were run simultaneously on June 27, 2012, according to the latest West Closure Complex inspection report published by the SLFPA-W. All the WCC inspection reports are available here.

[UPPER-ER-DATE - February 23, 2011 - Public meeting in March about Water Control Plan announced]
Yesterday - February 22nd - the Corps announced a public meeting to discuss the WCC Water Control Plan. The press release is here.

Date: Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2011
Informational Open House 6 to 6:30 p.m.
Presentation and discussion 6:30 p.m.
Location: Visitation of Our Lady School
3520 Ames Blvd., Marrero, LA 70072

In conjunction with the meeting announcement, they put out a summary of the Water Control Plan. Remarkably, it mentions the pump shortfall detailed below. However, it mentions none of the consequences of that shortfall (*cough*local pump stations shut down*cough*), it leaves out a lot of essential detail, and doesn't even include the basics like a map of the WCC and the local pump stations. The much more useful complete draft plan is available here, and the far less-detailed summary is here.

The slides for this meeting are here. The slides for an unpublicized "stakeholder" meeting the day before are here. "Stakeholders" is Corps-code for all the behind-the-scenes folks that are not the public, e.g. contractors, bureaucrats, connected government officials, shipping industry bigwigs, businessmen with interests that intersect with the Corps, etc.

And, unsurprisingly, neither set of slides mentions the pumping shortfall.

[UPPERDATE - January 28, 2011 - with Times-Picayune coverage; see bottom of post]
[UPDATE - January 24, 2011 - with video; see bottom of post]

The Corps of Engineers is building a giant storm barrier/gate complex/pump station on the West Bank, across from Orleans Parish. It is designed to be the front line of hurricane defense for the vast majority of the West Bank. It is called the West Closure Complex, or WCC for short. Here's where it is:

The pump station part of the WCC is meant to drain the rainwater that will be pumped into the Harvey and Algiers canals during a tropical storm or hurricane, because the WCC's storm surge gates (along with gates at the opposite, northern ends of each canal) will be closed during such an event, turning the canals into big bathtubs. There are 9 local pump stations that will put rainwater into the two canals. They drain the following area, covering about 70 square miles of the West Bank:

The WCC pumps - there are 11 of them - are supposed to exceed the capacity of the local pumps putting rainwater into the canals. And if all 11 WCC pumps are working, they theoretically would do that.

However, that won't be the case come hurricane season 2011. That's because according to the Corps' own documents for operating the WCC, only 8 of those pumps will be functioning then.

Naturally, this creates a shortfall. According to those Corps documents, the walls surrounding the Algiers and Harvey canals would overtop in 17 hours with all 9 local pump stations going and only 8 pumps going at the WCC. Their solution is to tell the local pump operators to stop pumping and thus flood residences and businesses.

Not helping the situation is the fact that the communications and control systems for the WCC will not be finished before the 2011 hurricane season either, which will definitely hamper coordination during storms among the Corps (running the WCC), Jefferson Parish (which runs 5 of the local stations), Plaquemines Parish (which runs 2) and New Orleans' Sewerage & Water Board (which runs the other 2). It's not hard to imagine the clusterblank that will develop when three different parishes are told by the Corps to stop pumping rainwater out during a hurricane.

Here's some excerpts from those Corps documents, which together form the interim "Water Control Plan" for the WCC (dated December 14, 2010):
"The pumping capacity deficiency during the interim period could result in higher water levels within the Algiers Canal and lower Harvey Canal (below the Lapalco sector gate) during rainfall events that occur when the gates are closed. With 8 pumps in service, the WCC capacity of 14,000 cfs trails the peak capacity of the 9 interior pump stations by about 5,500 cfs. This 5,500 cfs differential, if it remains constant, would overtop the detention basin levees in about 17 hours. Rather than allow that to happen, in such an extreme event the interior pump station managers would be asked to scale back their pumping, which would result in flooding within the interior basins. Precautionary measures include making the interior pump station managers aware of the situation, and maintaining close communications during extreme rainfall events."
-from Interim Water Control Plan for WCC, main text, dated Dec. 14, 2010

They've got their fingers crossed that the WCC gates are open part of the time the heavy rain is falling and getting pumped into the canals:
"It is unlikely that a rainfall event with such intensity and areal coverage to require all 9 pump stations in the Algiers/Harvey Basin to run at full speed for many hours while a hurricane storm surge is threatening the area. As Plates A-24 and A-25 illustrate, the length of time that interior pumping rates exceed the Interim WCC pumping capacity is 12 hours for the 10-year rainfall event, and 16 hours for the 100-year event. It is most likely that some part of that 12 or 16 hours will fall outside the time when the gates have to be closed."
- from Standing Instructions, Appendix A to WCC Water Control Plan, dated Dec. 14, 2010

I'm glad we can hang our hat on "most likely."

Part of the problem arises from the plan itself, which calls for closing the WCC gates 24 hours ahead of excessive surge (+4.0 ft) or wind conditions (greater than 50 mph):
"This regulating plan, shutting the gates 24 hours in advance of a surge, creates the potential situation where the interior pumping is greater than the capacity of the WCC pump station. This is especially true during the Interim Period [the Interim Period is the months or years when the station only has 8 pumps instead of 11], when the pump station is operating at reduced capacity. This condition will not be problematic most of the time because the canals have sufficient storage to absorb the excess interior pumping. It is very important for the WCC project manager to pump the water levels as low as possible as soon as the gates are closed to maximize this storage potential."
- from Standing Instructions, Appendix A to WCC Water Control Plan, dated Dec. 14, 2010

This exposes a further vulnerabilty: there is no spare capacity built into the WCC pump station. It is designed for 19,305 cubic feet per second (cfs), which is the calculated outflowrate for a ten-year rain storm at the WCC location (please note: a ten year rainfall is completely different than a 100 year surge. For more details on what a "ten year" rainstorm is, please see this earlier post). But it is only when all 11 pumps are running that the WCC system achieves that rate. There are no spare pumps built into the station to allow for mechanical breakdowns or maintenance during hurricane season. The locally-owned-and-built pump stations were constructed with spare capacity, despite the extra cost. Because things break.

The Corps doesn't say how long it will be for the levees to be overtopped or for local pump stations to shut down if just one of their 8 pumps in operation this summer fails during a storm, but we can assume something substantially less than 17 hours - probably closer to 9 or 10 hours. They also don't say which neighborhoods get flooded in case local pump stations get shut down to avoid overtopping.

If this all sounds familiar, that's because it is. The east bank of Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish went through this same rigamarole in 2006 and 2007 with the construction of the pump systems and gates at the three outfall canals. The Corps constantly made promises and set deadlines of increased pumping capacities, and constantly broke those promises and busted those deadlines. And of course, we know now that the pumps they installed would never have done the relatively minor job they were advertised for in those years. Even now, those outfall canal pumps' capacity appears to be far below their nameplates, according to the Corps' own SCADA data for those stations. But that's a matter for future posts.

This WCC delay appears to be somewhat recent, or perhaps it was known all along. And it's happening despite the full force of Pentagon contracting being thrown at it. Here's excerpts from the special website about the WCC pumps set up by their manufacturer, Fairbanks-Morse:
"DO-N7 Rating

The West Closure Complex work comes with a DO-N7 Rating. This rating is part of the Defense Priorities and Allocations System (DPAS). A DO-N7 rating applies to critical infrastructure protection and restoration. A DO-N7 requires congressional approval. With this rating – and the priority that the pump station be online by June of 2011 -- it was necessary to ensure that all vendors selected to work on the project agreed to (by law, with acceptance of any contractual agreements) to commit to doing whatever it takes to make forward progress.

Accelerated Schedule

In the middle of the project we were asked to accelerate the schedule. Fairbanks worked with its vendors to establish a new schedule in order to accommodate contractor needs. However, even though the schedule was accelerated, our end date never changed: To have flood control by June 2011.

So despite all that government prioritization, having flood control by June 2011 now appears to be impossible.

So when will the other 3 pumps be ready? The Water Control Plan only says, "Installation and testing of the three remaining pumps will continue during the hurricane season." If you have a problem with that, there's a bunch of people's names and phone numbers on pages 28 and 30 of this document.

[UPDATE - January 24, 2011]

The Water Control Plan for the West Closure Complex, found linked and explained above, is scheduled to be was discussed by the West Bank Flood Protection Authority (official name, Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - West) at 3 PM, Monday, January 24 at their building in the 7000 block of River Road in Marrero. The agenda for the meeting is here. The Water Control Plan is item number 8. The meeting minutes are here. They reveal nothing of the discussion, or if there even was one.

In addition, Fox 8's John Snell got this out there during their January 21, 2010 broadcast:

Despite the Corps' own document saying exactly what will happen, the Corps spokesperson (Rene Poche) pooh-poohed any concern: "That's a lot of speculation there, and I don't want to really venture into a speculative-type question as to how it may or may not work."

That's reassuring. And I'm sure the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars spent on hydraulic modeling the system down to the gnat's ass mean absolutely nothing too.

Let me put that another way... Poche's ridiculous, patronizing hand waving of his own agency's written concerns in a governing operational document is the exact opposite of how risk communication is supposed to work among adults.]

[UPPERDATE - January 28, 2011]

The Times-Picayune attended the West Bank authority meeting on January 24th and published an article about it four days later.

Most of the article deals with problems of cooling coils on the pumps. They will be mounted in the discharges of the pumps, getting pummelled the entire time the pumps are on. The authority is understandably skeptical of the Corps' assurance everything will be fine. That assurance seems to be based solely on a Corps static analysis of the coils and a promise to monitor stuff after the system is started up, which is, pardon the pun, very shaky indeed when talking about vibrations. The Board is demanding a dynamic analysis, which should have been done in the first place.

They made the same promises about the east bank hydraulic pumps in 2006, which displayed vibration problems among the cornucopia of flaws in their spring 2006 factory testing. When the vibration problems - among many others - manifested themselves in a huge way (after zero previous investigation) nearly immediately after installation, all those pumps had to get yanked out and didn't go back in the water for nine months. They still have numerous design flaws in them, including vibrations, as stated by Corps engineer Ray Newman in January, 2008 to an interviewer from PentagonTV (click here for Molly Peterson's KPCC "Pumps Under Pressure" special report. Scroll to the right in the timeline until you come to January, 2008 and click on note, "Engineer to PentagonTV: 'Pumps vibrate'").

So based on the east bank pumps experience, why should the leopard change its spots this time around?

Anyhow, the article also mentioned the pumping shortfall as well, finally giving a vague deadline:
"Matt McBride, a mechanical engineer and blogger, said the fact that just eight of the 11 pumps are expected to be online by the start of the hurricane season June 1 leaves a large portion of the West Bank more vulnerable to flooding.

He noted that the corps' interim plan for operating the West Closure Complex indicates the floodwalls along the two canals would overtop in 17 hours if the floodgate were closed during a 10-year rainstorm.

Corps officials said that the odds of such an event occurring early in the hurricane season are extremely low and that all 11 pumps are expected to be online before the peak of hurricane season.

Levee authority commissioners said they are satisfied with that assurance, but McBride said he is not.

'The corps provided similar assurances for all of 2006 and most of 2007 for the pumps at the east bank outfall canals, and almost all proved exaggerated and ultimately untrue," he said in a written statement. "So until all 11 custom designed and fabricated pumps have been fully tested with independent witnesses, ... it is best to withhold judgement on any corps predictions of the performance of their equipment.'"

Here's the full quote I sent the T-P:
"The Corps provided similar assurances for all of 2006 and most of 2007 for the pumps at the east bank outfall canals, and almost all proved exagerated and ultimately untrue. So until until all eleven custom designed and fabricated pumps have been fully tested with independent witnesses, and the complete results of those tests shared with the public, it is best to withhold judgement on any Corps predictions of the performance of their equipment."

It's unclear why they took out "and the complete results of those tests shared with the public," but I'm just glad they covered the problem at all.

And as far as "all 11 pumps are expected to be online before the peak of hurricane season," I have two things to say:

1) What exactly is the cause for the delay, and why so reluctant to tell the public?
After all, they're going to have to explain it come this April or May, when they turn the pumps on in front of the cameras and there's only 8 waterfalls coming out of the station where there should be 11. So why not just tell us now what is going on? Last I checked, coyness is not an element of risk communication.

2) Once again the goalposts start moving again. Plus ca change...

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