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Rains not heavy enough for pump test

There was water, water everywhere Wednesday, but never enough of it for the Army Corps of Engineers to crank up all their biggest pumps on the three New Orleans outfall canals.
The corps was able to run all 11 direct-drive pumps at the 17th Street Canal, but there still was too little water to operate the 18 hydraulic pumps that have been the focus of intense scrutiny.
In order to get the new hydraulic pumps in place in time for the June 1 start of the 2006 hurricane season, the units were installed before problems with the pumping systems were resolved.
Corps decision-makers said they felt that having pumps in the water, even if initially they couldn't function in top form, was better than having no pumps at all during the first hurricane season after Katrina.
Corps officials have said that all problems with the hydraulic pumping systems were resolved by September 2007 and each of the pumps has been run for brief intervals. But there has never been long-term operation of the pumps because they require a depth of water that is available in the canal only if Lake Pontchartrain rises significantly, as had been forecast to happen Wednesday afternoon.
"We came out early this morning with intentions of running everything we have . . . and the original plan was to run them until sunset," said Ray Newman, the corps' 17th Street Canal captain. "But the lake remained too low for us to operate the hydraulic pumps."
Although corps pump personnel were disappointed by the lack of water, Newman said the day wasn't a loss. He said many of the direct-drive pumps, which are larger pumps that run at low water elevations, operated trouble-free for eight hours.
"For four of those hours, the rain was beating down on them, which mimics hurricane conditions, and they ran like champs," he said.
At the London Avenue Canal, Newman said, the corps operated six of the nine large, direct-drive pumps. Three others were off line because of maintenance issues involving a vacuum cleaner-sized grease pump.
He said a cold snap two weeks ago caused problems for the three grease pumps, which lubricate the water pump bearings, and a distributor was on the scene making repairs and performing maintenance.
He said the grease pumps should be back in service in a week or two.
"These systems are designed for summer operation, and they work harder in cold weather," Newman said, adding that the problems were discovered during weekly runs that the corps conducts as part of routine maintenance.
No pumps were run at the smaller Orleans Avenue Canal, where the corps installed only hydraulic pumps.
After Katrina, the corps installed floodgates in all three canals that can be closed to block storm surges. The temporary pumps are designed to be used only to move water out of the canals and around the gates when closed.
During Wednesday's testing, the gates remained open so as not to interfere with Orleans Sewerage and Water Board pumps that were moving storm water out of the canals and into the lake.

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