After the Flood
As the City Council scurries to enact new flood resolutions, our antique drainage system continues to rust
By Mark Sanders
In 1956, Albuquerque was outfitted with a new drainage system—one that has remained largely unchanged ever since.
Roy Robinson, general manager of the Water Utility Authority, explains. “The first design was done in the ’50s and ’60s. The Broadway pump station was built in 1956. … We can’t even find parts for [the pump stations].”
Parts he does find often come from salvage yards and companies that make equipment similar to—though not exactly like—the original pump parts. Westinghouse, the electrical equipment company whose imprint is prominently displayed on the 1,200-horsepower pumps Downtown, stopped making these metal hulks years ago, thus making the all-too-frequent breakdowns at Broadway a monumental undertaking to fix.
“We’re cannibalizing parts from other cities,” Robinson says.
Robinson’s organization broke from the city three years ago in a complicated deal that leaves the Water Utility Authority responsible for running pump stations, while the city technically owns them. Albuquerque’s wastewater pumps are old enough to be grandparents. Worse yet, says Robinson, they’ve been retrofitted with nonstandard, often salvaged parts. Small wonder that flooding is such a problem Downtown, highlighted, of course, by the raw sewage and stormwater that wreaked so much havoc on Barelas and Martineztown last month.
That might soon change. City Councilor Isaac Benton, whose district includes those two predominantly Hispanic, working-class enclaves, won unanimous Council approval last week for a resolution he sponsored that would mitigate future flood problems. It obliges the city to work with the Water Utility Authority to inspect and test pumps regularly, starting within the next 45 days. Hopefully, newer equipment’s not far behind.
When Benton toured Martineztown after a recent flood, he learned that, because of a break in the waterline, sewage had tainted the stormwater. (Robinson estimates that 10 percent of the Martineztown flood was sewage.) Benton confirmed that 20 Barelas homeowners recently threatened to sue the city for negligence and are seeking compensation for home damage caused by Albuquerque’s ill-equipped drainage system.
Benton won’t comment on the lawsuit, though he’s aware of the possible legal action.
“I don’t think this has been negligence or intentional,” Benton insists. “My whole purpose of this bill is to raise awareness. There are limitations to what storm drainage systems can handle, and we need to know what they are. We need emergency plans, traffic control plans. …”
And an overhauled facility. On a recent tour of the Broadway pump station, which has been at the center of the flooding controversy of the past month, Robinson and Superintendent Jerry Morse explained how pump stations work, how the system has failed and what needs to be done.
If a part breaks at one of the pumps, “we’re down three, four months,” says Morse, a burly Nebraska native on the verge of retiring from the Authority. With the new legislation, he says, “at least we’ll be able to get parts.”
The Broadway station sits in a nondescript stretch of road Downtown, the kind of place you’ve probably driven past countless times and never noticed. Inside the fenced-off facility, a retention pool sits a couple of stories below ground level. Water that flows through the streets and into gutters ends up here, along with heaps of trash that get washed away.
Ever play catch in the streets, only to have your game ruined when the ball rolls into the gutter? There’s a good chance it ends up at a facility like this, along with a laundry list of odds and ends. Superintendent Morse has found, among other items, a small refrigerator among the storm drain detritus.
Massive pumps suck in water, filtered through a series of screens, and churn out an estimated 60,000 gallons per minute. And that’s just the Broadway facility (there are a total of 14 pump stations in Albuquerque). The water ends up in the North Diversion, the giant concrete arroyo you see as you drive down I-40 through town, and eventually flows into the Rio Grande.
With such powerful equipment, how could Downtown ever flood? In the case of the Aug. 13 deluge, it was bad timing. Workers repairing the crossed-up wastewater and stormwater lines were in the actual pipes around that date, so for safety, the pumps were shut down. Robinson notes that the pumps were operational within 45 minutes. But even that couldn’t save Barelas and Martineztown.
Part of Councilor Benton’s plan calls for re-examining the definition of a 100-year flood. On that one infamous day this summer, the water in Martineztown rose two inches in 30 minutes, in what Robinson half-jokingly terms a “200-year flood.” Even with all the pumps running, the volume was still too much.
Benton and Robinson both stress that it’s hard to know what infrastructure’s needed to adequately prepare for flood conditions. Robinson notes that the original drainage plans didn’t account for all the development that would crop up in the city in the next 50 years. Even the building that houses the Broadway pumps warrants careful examination. As Morse descends a steel staircase into the pump station’s bowels, he notes cracks in the walls and an uneven foundation. It’s partly the result of building in a floodplain (the Rio Grande flows just blocks away from here), though the deterioration’s been exacerbated by these huge pumps’ operation.
“It’s busted up,” Morse says plaintively, in his rural Midwestern drawl. The vibration from the pumps, plus the tons of water sitting in the massive concrete vats, is a big concern for the Water Utility Authority. But again, they don’t own anything; they just deal with what they have.
Though the Barelas and Martineztown floods were a calamity for residents and their decades-old homes, the legislation will give Robinson the attention he’s been seeking for more than 10 years. He has letters to the city asking for updated equipment dating back to 1990. One of his oft-repeated phrases is, “I’m getting lemons thrown at me and I’m trying to make lemonade.”
Close to the end of our Broadway station tour, Morse points out an expanse in the floor that used to house a rhino-sized pump engine. The equipment’s been sent to a local shop for repairs, which will take a month-and-a-half to finish.
Even when he does get the retrofitted engine, Morse won’t be able to test it until the next big storm, which probably—hopefully—won’t happen until next summer.
“You’ve just got to have faith,” Morse says somberly. He’s referring to the one engine, but he might as well be talking about this entire system.
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