Restoring New Orleans� drinking-water supply could be a year-long chore, says a water system expert whose company is intimately familiar with the city�s water and wastewater systems.

Denver-based MWH Global has worked extensively on the water system for 25 years in New Orleans, says Mark Swatek, president of MWH�s municipal division. The drinking-water purification plant �is generally OK� because it is above water, he says, but it�s not functioning because the power is down. �It hasn�t been as significantly damaged as other elements,� he says.

But the water-supply system is another story. Since it is almost entirely under the floodwaters, it will have to be flushed and probably disinfected. �It could easily be a year,� he speculates.

Hurricane Katrina�s floods also washed away a capital improvement program to separate the city�s combined sewage and stormwater systems. MWH was the program manager and engineer for the program, whose cost was estimated at more than $200 million, says Swatek. �We had already let the contracts and were about to start,� he says.

New Orleans� depressed elevation�70% of the area is said to be below sea level�requires �an extensive drainage system to keep it dry,� notes Swatek. The system operates with about 1,000 pumping stations �the size of a fire station� in Jefferson Parish and New Orleans itself, three times as many as a typical municipality. Virtually all of them are under water or burned up, he says. Accurate assessment of the damage will have to wait until the Army Corps of Engineers can seal off the water from Lake Pontchartrain, but �the damage typically is pretty extensive,� he says. �Most are specific-design pumps�custom.� That will further complicate the recovery.

�The wastewater plants are virtually all under water,� Swatek says. �Most are probably at the tail end of their design life,� and the city has been evaluating what to do with them. MWH has been doing $15 million in annual business with the city for the last couple of years, and also has been doing municipal engineering work in Slidell, Jefferson Parish and Baton Rouge, he says.

�I�ve got 90 people spread out over three offices in the area,� Swatek says. The company has accounted for almost all of them, but three are still missing. �We�ve got people who lost everything,� including one couple who just moved to the area from Sudan. They had just bought their first house�it was in New Orleans.

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