Fix the pumps

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The story so far

[Updated after meeting - see bottom of post]

The Corps is planning a round of public meetings to take input on the synopsis and the phase 1 RFP for the permanent pump stations. The first meeting is due to take place November 19, 2009 (details here).

They had previously scheduled such a series, with the first one scheduled for October, but they had cancelled them to gve more time to negotiate the Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) with the state. Now, even with the PPA under negotiation, they are pushing ahead with the first meeting. It is undoubtedly a cheap PR move on their part to tell a room full of citizens that the State is holding up their storm protection - a lie of course.

In advace of that meeting, what do we now know about the Corps' plans for the permanent pump stations? And what is the Corps likely to say?

A quick primer first:

Option 1 installs new pump stations at the lake to replace the current interim closure structures. It leaves the city pump stations, the walls, and the levees along the canals in place.

Option 2 also installs lakefront pump stations, and it removes the city pumping stations and lowers the existing canal bottoms. It also lines the canal bottoms with concrete and effectively turns the canals into gravity drains similar to systems used elsewhere throughout Jefferson and other parts of Orleans Parish. The canal bottoms would be below grade, and the weakened walls - the ones that failed in Katrina and are now prohibited from seeing their maximum design loads by so-called "safe water elevations" - would be removed from seeing water. The Corps' own technical analysis calls Option 2 superior to Option 1.

Naturally, the Corps is pushing ahead with the cheaper, less technically superior Option 1, over the objections of everyone from the citizens up to the State government.

1) The Corps claims everything is paid for with federal dollars

FALSE. While the construction of the new Option 1 pump stations is fully federally funded, operation and maintenance of the future pump stations will likely fall on to the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans, a perenially cash-strapped agency still recovering from Katrina and which already operates four pump stations along the three outfall canals. Drainage operations are funded through property taxes, which have falled precipitously since the storm (the City of New Orleans faces a $67 million deficit this year due in part to a drop in property tax collection).

The standard estimate for the annual cost of operation and maintenance of drainage pumping structures is $500,000 per 1000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The total amount of cfs proposed for the three new pump stations in Option 1 is around 20,000 cfs. That means the S&WB needs to come up with an extra $10 million a year in their drainage budget. According to the 2009 S&WB operating budget, the drainage operating budget is about $27.7 million. And now the Corps want to drop another $10 million in the laps of the taxpayers of New Orleans through Option 1 - which adds three stations but does not subtract any. How exactly is the S&WB supposed to account for a 36% jump in expenses with no corresponding increase in revenues? There's only one way: raise property taxes on citizens.

Option 2 would be tax-neutral, since it replaces the city pumps one-for-one with lakefront pumps. In fact, it might even have a stimulative effect on property taxes, as potential homeowners see a safer, superior system get installed in place of the already-proven-to-fail walls. But the Corps would rather stick with their cheaper Option 1 alternative while they saddle the citizens with a $500 million tax bill over the 50 year design life of the project. That's the dirty little secret of Option 1.

2) The Corps will claim that Congress forced them into Option 1 through the authorization and funding levels in the law, and they only do what Congress tells them.

FALSE. In 2005, it was the Corps that drafted the language that authorized the permanent pump station project, including the amount of funding for it. That language includes the words "modify the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue, and London Avenue drainage canals," and - despite the plain language - the Corps has dictated (and gotten the Office of Management and Budget to buy into) the idea that "modify" does not apply to the entire length of the canal, only the vicinity of the pump stations at the lakefront.

Also, it was the funding amount that was the key to understanding that the Corps CHOSE Option 1. That funding amount was their very early post-Katrina estimate for Option 1, taken from their internal documents. Their estimate for Option 2 only came in $190 million higher, and they could have asked for that amount and crafted ironclad Option 2 language, but they CHOSE not to at the very moment they had a golden opportunity to ask for whatever they wanted. The Corps cheaped out and cheated New Orleans out of the better, safer option. There's lot's more details on this in my September 30, 2009 post, "The fix was in."

3) As a result of (2), the Corps claims they are not authorized to "modify" the entire length of the canals to Option 2 depths.

FALSE, by their own public admission.

Within the last two weeks, three separate Corps officials, including the two most senior officials on the ground in New Orleans, have confirmed the Corps is planning major "rehabilitation" and "physical improvements" to the canal walls which sound just like what would occur under Option 2, short of digging the canals deeper.

In response to a question from the City Council at their November 5, 2009 meeting (video here, slides here), Task Force Hope leader Karen Durham-Aguilera, the civilian program director for the entire Corps effort around New Orleans, said (at about 2:17:38 on the video),

"We've got engineering analyses of those outfall canal walls and those safe water elevations ongoing right now with Sewerage & Water Board and levee authorities. So we're looking to see if we can physically improve those walls further and assure that Sewerage & Water Baord would not have an overtopped system."

A few minutes later, Colonel Bob Sinkler, the head of the Hurricane Protection Office, said (at about 2:23:48 on the video),

"After the Safe Water Elevation studies are complete and after they [the canal walls] are rehabilitated based upon the information we gather from those studies, they will be able to accommodate any needs that the Sewerage & Water Board has to remove rainwater through those canals. And things are well on track to do that. We're working hand in hand with the Sewerage & Water Board to ensure that's the case."

Finally in a report aired on Fox 8 just this week (story here, video here), Corps engineer John Grieshaber gave pertinent details:

"'There are a number of possibilities and they are unique to different situations. Deep soil mixing is one, driving new sheet pile to cut off seepage is another, modification of the internal walls of the canal, and putting relief wells,' Grieshaber said. 'Deep soil mixing is when you actually go into the foundation and you mix cement and form columns which changes the strength of the soil. It makes the soil a lot stronger.'"

Those methods mentioned by Grieshaber - deep soil mixing (DSM), seepage cutoff walls, etc - are all integral to the plans for Option 2 laid out in the key 2009 Black & Veatch "90 Day Study."

That report studied three ways to deepen the canals. Style 1 is shown here:

and is described as,
"This alternative provides support of the existing floodwalls of the canal through a combination of a soldier pile system and DSM. The soldier piles and DSM will provide the support of the existing parallel protection floodwalls during construction, support of the final canal banks and act as the vertical seepage cut-off."

Style 2:

"This alternative provides support of the existing floodwalls of the canal through a combination of soldier pile system and DSM. The DSM will provide the support of the existing parallel protection floodwalls as described in the previous alternative. The soldier piles are extended to the depth of the deep seepage cut-off."

And Style 3:

"This is a trapezoidal canal alternative that incorporates a perimeter deep soil mixing/jet grouting component to control seepage, ground modification to improve slope stability, and grout filled fabric form to form the canal perimeter"

Style 3 is what was used for the Corps' cost estimate in the 2009 Cost Report to Congress:
"The cost estimate includes a trapezoidal shaped canal with deep soil mixing/jet grouting and the grout filled fabric forms bottom and side slopes. This was the least cost of severl methods reviewed"

How exactly are the "rehabilitation" and "physical improvements" the Corps plans on for the existing canals in the near future any different than the actions of Option 2? It certainly appears they are substantially the same, with only the final depth of the canal and placement of a slab on the bottom of the canal providing the difference. Both make substantial changes - modifications - to the canals. If the Corps can make these changes locally at certain spots in the canals, they can do them along their entire lengths.

4) The Corps will claim the bid process has to get underway soon, because the existing gate structures and pumps have a "limited life," and that leaving them there will put citizens at increased risk.

FALSE. This is the most odious veiled threat the Corps puts out there. Do they seriously think citizens believe the Corps is going to allow their gate structures to simply melt away, fall apart, or otherwise disintegrate?

The Corps Dan Bradley - the public face of the permanent pump station project -has already said publicly to the SLFPA-East (the east bank levee authority) on September 17, 2009 they are spending approximately $5 million in maintenance on the three existing interim closure structures:
"Mr. Goins asked about the USACE’s plan for maintaining the Interim Control Structures should there be additional slippage in completing the permanent project. Mr. Bradley replied that the USACE has a good maintenance program in place. The estimated annual cost of the ICS maintenance is approximately $5 million, which increases each year. The maintenance costs are coming out of the project budget."

That last sentence is probably more key than anything - the Corps is not paying for Operations with money from their Operations budget; they are using project funds to do so. I'm not sure if they are statutorily required to do so, or if they could transfer money from elsewhere in their District budget to run the closure structures and save the cash for the purpose it was meant - building new stations.

Anyway, the biggest maintenance concern - corrosion - is already being dealt with on a continuous basis. After years of delay, the Corps sandblasted and painted all the exposed piping on the structures late last year and earlier this year, as documented in updates to my post, "More on pipes ... and rust."

Also, they are engaging in (or have already completed) repairs to some pumps - supposedly due to corrosion. WWL-TV reported on August 4th, 2009 that,
"...some of the pumps at the 17th Street Canal have been pulled out of the site after inspectors discovered problems with six of the hydraulic pumps there...
A routine inspection uncovered major corrosion on six of the pumps. Corps officials said a high salinity content in the water may be to blame...
Because the six pumps are located underwater, the only way to fix them is to bring them onto dry land, effectively taking them out of the pumping system...
The Corps said, during repairs, they are only removing two of the pumps at a time, in order to maintain a 95 percent pumping capacity."

I hope to have more information on these repairs in the near future.

As one can see, they are already engaging in maintenance to keep the system running. The threat that they will choose not to maintain the system at some point, and that they are using such a threat to push public support toward an inferior design, is nose-curling. But it's par for the course for an organization statutorily protected from liability from defects in flood control works.

There's more on the Corps strategy to use threats and intimidation in my post, "Corps to NOLA: Drop Dead (unless we get Option 1)." They have repeated this threat as recently as November 5, 2009, at the New Orleans City Council meeting.

5) The Corps will claim that even though they are forcing Option 1 on people, they are designing the pump stations to be "adaptable," so that any modifications needed for Option 2 will be minimal.

half TRUE, half FALSE. The Corps has committed to built pump stations which have deepened foundations designed to accommodate future deepening of the canals, and they've also committed to put in buildings that are sized to handle the bigger equipment of the future Option 2. Those commitments do not appear anywhere in a legally binding document yet, though, so take them at face value.

More importantly, a number of features which would also make the stations truly adaptable from Option 1 to Option 2 are not currently included in their plans. Those features being left out in order to cut down on the cost of the Option 1 stations include:

a) Pump inlets, such as formed suction inlets, or "FSI's," which do not need changing when the stations are converted
b) Installation of bigger pump drive equipment now, to avoid future higher costs.
c) Installation of adequate generators and fuel storage now for future Option 2 needs, which would avoid future higher costs.
d) A smooth, sloped transition from the current high elevation of the channel bottoms to the deepened pump station foundation. The Corps wants to just put in an abrupt step (called a retaining wall), which will induce turbulence at the pump inlets and increase pump maintenance costs, as well as becoming a place to trap silt.
e) Complete, redundant backflow protection - an obvious need after what happened in Jefferson Parish during Katrina, when their backflow systems failed without operators to attend them.
f) This is the big one - the Corps does not want to include upgrades to the walls along the entire lengths of the canals in this project. See (3) above.

There's lots of detail on these and all the other features of the proposed stations in my four part series, "Pennywise:" Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

6) The Corps claims Option 1 will be just as safe as Option 2

FALSE. Option 1 leaves the existing canals in place forever, with their requirements for maintenance dredging. As I explain in my October 20, 2009 entry, "Silted In," the current canals have silt building up in them at an alarming rate, and will need to be cleaned out soon. The last time the 17th Street canal was dredged, it led to - in part - the wall failure in Katrina. Do we really want clamshell buckets hauling away cubic yards of material from the canal bottoms within feet of these already-weakened canal walls?

So do you still trust the Corps to do the right thing through Option 1? It's something they chose because it's cheaper for them, but more expensive in the long run for the taxpayers. It's inferior from an engineering standpoint, and even what they are proposing doesn't pass the sniff test.

I hope the citizens of New Orleans realize what a raw deal they are getting, and that they let the Corps and their elected representatives know.

From the T-P's coverage of the November 19, 2009 meeting, a bombshell:
"Col. Robert Sinkler, commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, which is overseeing the projects for the corps, said the corps is working on a study to determine which floodwalls along the canals might need to be replaced, and has $90 million set aside to pay for that work. But that work won't be complete until sometime after the June 2011 deadline for construction of the rest of the hurricane risk reduction system, he said."

First off, this appears to be typical Corps good news/bad news - we'll do the right thing, but it's over four years later and it's going to take probably another three to actually do it. And to top it all off, we're going to keep it secret until a public meeting where only a small cross section of the public shows up.

The bombshell part is that this announcement blows the Corps' argument that they are not authorized to proceed wth Option 2 out of the water. They are setting aside nearly $100 million and planning on a multi-year project which could not only repair or shore up walls, but could actually replace them. If that isn't "modifying" the canals, I don't know what is. At this point, the only real thing stopping them is their lack of balls in asking Congress for enough cash for Option 2.

Also, how does Colonel Sinkler get off not telling the New Orleans City Council this huge news at their November 5th meeting, just two weeks ago? The City Council - and government officials at every level - need to get him in front of them and get a full explanation of what the hell is going on, and why vital information like this is being withheld.

One other note, also from the T-P article:
"Marcia St. Martin, director of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, said the new pump stations will add $10 million a year to the board's annual budget, and that her agency continues to prefer two options that would deepen the drainage canals and remove the interior pump stations."

It's nice to see that number publicly confirmed by the head of the agency who must bear the costs. Hopefully, the public understands the burden Option 1 will be.


  • As a member of the Pump-to-the-River board, I am commenting in full support of the above summary of where we are today.
    I also acknowledge that no organization in the world (other than the Corps) could have pulled off the installation of the interim facilities that now protect us.
    But in the final analysis it will be the permanent pump stations that give us the protection that our children and theirs will need to survive future threats from wind and water.
    The new facilities must be the best the Corps can design and build - not the cheapest.

    John Hummel

    By Anonymous John Hummel, at November 19, 2009 8:41 AM  

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