“A Visit to the Pump Station” — special print feature available in the New Orleans Advocate/Times Picayune only on Sunday, December 22, 2019.


Photos by CFreedom and Maggie Hermann

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.

The water that falls from the sky picks up the dirt, trash, and organic and chemical pollutants that are in our streets, parking lots, and yards. From dog poop to styrofoam cups and containers, everything small enough to fit into a storm drain makes its way to the city’s pump stations. Where there are open canals, larger items like shopping carts and mattresses are common too. Trash screens and rakes remove larger items, but everything else is pushed through the pump and out into Lake Pontchartrain. Trash swirling amidst stormwater impacts the ecosystems of which we are part, and connects the interior of the city to the Gulf of Mexico.

Katrina floodlines, below, are reminders of the times when weather events have far exceeded the capacity of the city’s drainage and related infrastructural systems, and the pump stations were themselves inundated.
Newspaper clippings at DPS 1, above, capture key moments in SWBNO history, while log books detail hourly changes in conditions and operations over the past century, recorded faithfully by generations of operators.
The work of pump station operators is ceaseless, and emerges only intermittently into public view. Unfortunately, public attention usually follows neighborhood flooding, where some aspect of the drainage system has failed to work effectively, or the rain has exceeded the capacity of the system. Other mishaps and failures, including boil water advisories and billing fiascoes, have resulted in widespread mistrust and anger.
“They don’t see you in that pump every 30 minutes. They don’t see you staying here during a storm, when everything else is closed”

- Relief Operator Larry Boudreaux
Like a geological core sample, New Orleans’ pump stations offer a record of technological and social continuity, reform, and disruption across the past century. In the pump stations, we see manual switches that pre-date modern digital controls as well as multiple generations of pumps in a single station. Changes in the ceiling (here at DPS 1) indicate where an end wall was removed to create space for more pumps as the city grew around the station.
Above, Pump Station Operator Sterling Young talks to Anjelina Durio, a young New Orleanian who is working with Batture Engineering on community engagement for St. Anthony Green Streets, and also with the Water Leaders Institute, which brings together community leaders, policy makers, and technical experts to collectively define what “living with water” will look like for the city in the years ahead.

Changing water management in New Orleans is about more than upgrading and expanding pump stations. Present-day efforts to reimagine our collective relationship to water include the Urban Water Plan and efforts such as the $141 million Gentilly Resilience District. Organizations such as the Water Collaborative, Water Wise, the Urban Conservancy, Water Block, Groundwork New Orleans, and Ripple Effect are some of the organizations exploring ways in which youth, community leaders, neighborhood groups, policy makers, businesses, and institutions can play active roles in reducing our reliance on pumping and building more sustainable approaches to water management.