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Millions of gallons of water seeping away
Fissures in pipes traced to Katrina
Thursday, June 08, 2006
By Michelle Krupa Staff writer

About 85 million gallons of drinking water -- more than two-thirds of the total pumped into the pipes -- are leaking into the ground every day through breaks in New Orleans' hurricane-fractured water system, even after crews this week plugged a 15 million-gallon-per-day crack using a process that cut water pressure, in some cases to a dribble, from Uptown to Gentilly.

Even with that fix, the city continues to waste nearly twice the 50 million gallons per day that residents are paying to use, Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Marcia St. Martin said. Given the difficulty of locating underground leaks, especially with so few residents around to report them in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, St. Martin said much work still must be done.

"That's still just the tip of the iceberg," she said.

Before Hurricane Katrina's winds uprooted thousands of trees, dislodging countless underground water pipes, New Orleans' 455,000 residents used about 120 million gallons of water every day, St. Martin said. About 30 percent of that regularly disappeared through cracks in the ground or pooled in the street or was expended for firefighting or other public uses.

Now, with the population estimated to have reached 221,000, the water board is pumping out more drinking water than before the storm only to see the bulk of it vanish underground. St. Martin said S&WB crews have repaired more than 17,000 leaks since Aug. 29, but most of the remaining fissures are hidden beneath the streets.

The water board has hired a contractor to use a sounding device to search electronically for breaks in main pipes. Officials also are asking residents to report any leaks, including the sound of water running underground, by calling (504) 52-WATER or through the S&WB Web site,

The water pressure problem prompted several days of complaints from residents, first in Gentilly and then throughout the east bank of New Orleans, of low water pressure or no water at all flowing from their faucets.

St. Martin said water pressure was restored across the city Wednesday by 11 a.m. after crews fixed a broken underground valve in the Upper 9th Ward. She said that although the job was isolated, many neighborhoods were affected because the 1,600-mile pipe system consists of a series of loops that carry water from a filtration plant on Claiborne Avenue to every corner of the east bank.

"To repair that location had a result of affecting pressure in other areas of the city," she said.

Two municipal buildings in the Central Business District, City Hall and the New Orleans Civil Court Building, closed early Wednesday after low water pressure reduced service in restrooms and water-cooled air-conditioning systems.

Low pressure also forced firefighters Tuesday afternoon to call in an extra tanker truck to fight a one-alarm blaze at 3918 Clematis St. in Gentilly, a two-story building housing three occupied apartments. Witnesses at a fire Wednesday in the 1300 block of Burbank Street, also in Gentilly, said a helicopter was brought in to help douse a fire that burned a one-story brick house to the ground.

St. Martin said the S&WB intends to alert the public in the future whenever major repairs might reduce water pressure. She said the water board already informs the Fire Department when repairs could interrupt the availability of water to fight fires.

Though City Hall was expected to reopen for normal business hours today, the court building at 421 Loyola Ave. planned to shut its offices for the clerk of Civil District Court, clerk of the First City Court, civil sheriff and jury pool, and the business office of Civil District Court today and Friday at 12:30 p.m.

Court spokesman Walt Pierce said low water pressure has been a problem since the judiciary moved back into its building next to City Hall on Jan. 3, after being exiled after Katrina.

St. Martin attributed those water pressure problems to the building's lack of a booster pump to force drinking water to the upper floors.

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Michelle Krupa may be reached at or (504) 826-3312