NEW ORLEANS, La. — The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) today recognized the New Orleans Drainage System in New Orleans, Louisiana, as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The project was innovative and largely unprecedented for its time, and the first portions came online in the year 1900. The system now consists of 22 drainage pumping stations and 1,200 miles of network drains, as well as green infrastructure elements to manage stormwater runoff. The infrastructure is largely credited for making the existence of New Orleans possible, and the improved drainage and reduction in standing water contributed to better public health and reduced the number of malaria and typhoid deaths in the early 20th century.
The landmark was recognized at a dedication ceremony in New Orleans led by ASCE’s Louisiana and New Orleans Sections, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and by the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans (SWBNO).
ASCE represents more than 150,000 members of the civil engineering profession worldwide. It is the oldest national engineering society in the United States. ASCE recognizes historically significant civil engineering projects, structures, and sites all over the world. More than 280 projects have earned the prestigious title for creativity and innovation, and almost all are executed under challenging conditions.
“The job of a civil engineer is to make the complex possible, to work in harmony with natural systems, and to take the external threats to our daily lives and societal functionality out of the equation, to the best of our abilities,” said Maria Lehman, ASCE president. “It is no secret that New Orleans and Louisiana face significant challenges from storms, flooding, and other environmental threats due to the state’s location along the Gulf Coast. The ingenuity of civil engineers, dating back hundreds of years, has made the location not just possible as a place to live or visit, but desirable and a top destination for Americans and people spanning the globe.”
New Orleans’ position near the mouth of the Mississippi River made it a vital city for trade and commerce in the U.S. economy since the early 1800s, despite its problematic natural environment. The city was perched along the banks of the Mississippi River and next to Lake Pontchartrain, surrounded by swamps. Improvements to levee systems prevented the city from being inundated with flooding from the river, but rainfall became a pervasive issue as the city’s population grew in the 1870s.
The drainage system was first proposed in 1876 to replace primitive “drainage machines,” steam-powered paddle wheels that moved water runoff into canals that led to Lake Pontchartrain. The existing system was inefficient and could not handle the frequent, heavy tropical rain New Orleans experiences and could not lift water sufficiently to drain the city. After several proposals, construction on the current drainage system started in 1897, and the first portions of the system came online in 1900. The system drains stormwater through pipes and canals to reach drainage pump stations which expel the water into several bodies of water surrounding the city. Engineers have repeatedly expanded and enlarged the drainage system, including a massive investment in the drainage system authorized by the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project and approved by Congress in 1996. The Sewerage and Water Board’s green infrastructure plan is a critical partner and complement to the drainage system today.
The New Orleans Drainage System’s design has inspired water management system design in communities around America and worldwide. In Southeastern Florida, water management systems using pumps and canals divert excess water away from heavily populated areas during heavy rain, including tropical storms and hurricanes. Engineers in Kolkata, India and Shanghai, China have also used drainage and pumping systems like the ones in New Orleans to assist with water management.
The New Orleans Drainage System was nominated by the ASCE Louisiana Section.
About the American Society of Civil Engineers
Founded in 1852, the American Society of Civil Engineers represents more than 150,000 civil engineers worldwide and is America's oldest national engineering society. ASCE works to raise awareness of the need to maintain and modernize the nation's infrastructure using sustainable and resilient practices, advocates for increasing and optimizing investment in infrastructure, and improve engineering knowledge and competency. For more information, visit www.asce.org or www.infrastructurereportcard.org and follow us on Twitter, @ASCETweets and @ASCEGovRel.