What are some of the challenges that pump station operators face in their work? A few that come up in our conversations include trash in our waterways, public perception and trust, and the relationship between pumping, subsidence, and climate change.
The abundance of trash in our water systems has a significant impact on the functioning of the city’s drainage pump stations. This trash is not only ugly and hazardous to regional ecosystems, it also requires considerable resources and machinery to remove. Everything that is not removed is pumped into Lake Pontchartrain and other water bodies and waterways.
Another concern of pump station operators is public perception and trust, and the negativity that is often associated with the SWBNO after flooding events, billing fiascos, and boil water advisories. The operators we spoke with were proud of the work that they do on behalf of all New Orleanians, and hopeful that better public understanding of how the city’s drainage system functions might lead to more fruitful dialogue and better policies to address flooding and other water-related challenges.
Another issue facing New Orleans water management is subsidence, which is the sinking of the ground, and the fact that pumping water out of the city contributes directly to the continued loss of elevation. The mandate of the SWBNO is to remove floodwaters, but in removing water from the city, we lower the elevation of groundwater and accelerate the compaction of our soft soils. This process also results in the decomposition of organic materials in our soils, which results in further loss of soil volume and ground elevation.
The bowl-like topography of New Orleans is in large part the result of water being pumped out of the city for the past 100 years. This is a testament to the power of engineering, but also to the danger of relying on pumping as our primary response to rainfall. Sea levels are rising due to climate change, which makes the task of pumping water out even more challenging -- as the low-lying neighborhoods of New Orleans sink lower relative to Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico, our pumps will have even more work to do to lift and push water out of the city. Rainfall patterns are also changing, resulting in more frequent intense rains as well as periods of drought, both of which pose challenges to the city’s water management infrastructure.