The nucleus of New Orleans’ critical water system – responsible for drinking water in thousands of homes as well as pumping out rain and flood waters to keep the city dry – is a treatment plant once hailed for state-of-the-art engineering when it opened more than 100 years ago.
Today, the Carrollton Water Plant is a prime example of the kind of failing, crisis-point projects that Joe Biden wants to address in a $2.2 trillion proposal to revamp the nation’s infrastructure.
On 6 May, the president toured the Sewerage & Water Board facility that houses the city’s century-old turbines – more than half of which are broken – that power a network of drainage pumps.
The facility is running on only two of five turbines, plus five back-up power generators, to keep pumps running, only a modest improvement from when the city was inundated after summer storms – not a hurricane or tropical storm – that outpaced the pumps in 2017.
In March, executive director Ghassan Korban said the system is in a “very fragile state.”
The facility also houses the utility’s water purification equipment – the process draws water from the Mississippi River and through a series of filters and additives.
But residents are all too familiar with “boil water advisories” alerting residents to do so, after water pressure in the system drops long enough for the slight risk of bacteria to crawl out from the pipes.
The Sewerage & Water Board installed water towers – more common in rural parts of the country – to send water into the system during a pressure drop to prevent more boil advisories.
Mr Korban said that without making “significant improvements” in its facilities, the utility “won’t be able to meet higher standards” for the nation’s drinking water in the years ahead.
The “very antiquated and old system has served its life,” he told the president on Thursday. Without significant improvements, “the whole system could fail.”
“It’s as existential as it can be,” he said.
Mr Biden said: “What people don’t quite understand is my infrastructure proposal is several trillion dollars – this is about modernising our infrastructure.
He said if systems aren’t improved, “your whole city is in trouble”.
Over the last decade, millions of dollars in emergency funds and federal relief and incremental improvements for broken-down pumps and turbines were followed by more breakdowns and more floods.
It has become a familiar cycle: Political battles. Ousted leadership. Frustrated and flooded-out residents.
Following its epic engineering battles over more than 300 years to keep water out of a city below sea level, from the surrounding levees to its pumps, the city has faced growing calls for more sustainable solutions, underscored by the growing threats of the climate crisis and more severe storms and hurricanes in the warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The city’s paradoxical “learn to live with water” mantra, and the expensive problem of subsidence – in which the city continues to sink as it dries out – have been met with more immediate budget solutions and shrinking political interest.
Mr Biden’s American Jobs Plan proposes billions of dollars for water projects across the US, mostly to replace lead pipes in ageing water systems, but it also includes $56bn in grants and low-cost flexible loans for fixing stormwater systems and other water projects.
“You are the first president who highlighted and elevated the water infrastructure as an issue for the whole country,” Mr Korban told Mr Biden.
The White House gave Louisiana a D+ in its “infrastructure report card”. Officials estimate that the state’s drinking water infrastructure will need $7.3bn over the next 20 years.
The plan aims to create millions of jobs following an economic slowdown for water systems, roads and bridges, broadband internet access and supply-chain production, among other areas, while arguing for US manufacturing and innovation to keep up with competitors like China and to meet the pace of the climate crisis and growing socioeconomic disparities.
“These are the highest-value investments you can make as a nation, and they last the longest,” he said in remarks from Lake Charles on Thursday, the first of two stops on his one-day Louisiana trip.
“I’m taking up a collection,” Mr Biden joked to reporters after his New Orleans tour on Thursday.
“Water,” he said.
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