New Orleans is well acquainted with the challenges of living with water. But as is true of governmental authorities that deal with emergency planning, many of us came late to the realization that this crucial component of life should not be feared, but managed.
The post-Hurricane Katrina flooding of New Orleans gets much of the credit for a growing national awareness of the need not just for better flood protection around the country, but also for policies and systems that enable the conservation and management of water that can inundate communities as a result of big storms.
A cadre of urban planners, engineers and climate-change experts who descended on New Orleans after the 2005 flood helped open local and national eyes to the fact that rising sea levels could imperil millions of people unless steps are taken to harness storm water and treat it as the precious resource it is.
Many government and business groups in the local area have worked in the years since to hatch and nurture innovative ways of dealing with water, and the results of their efforts are taking shape in a variety of ways.
Last April, the American Planning Association bestowed its Environmental Planning Award on New Orleans in recognition of the city’s work to “create greener communities,” minimize manmade impacts on the natural environment “and improve environmental quality.”
The honor recognized the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, which was developed under commission from the business group Greater New Orleans Inc. using funding provided by the state.
The plan contains sweeping recommendations for capturing excess water from rain and storm events, channeling it safely into areas where it will do little harm and using it for public benefit.
It aims to tackle flooding, subsidence and infrastructure problems by means of improved management of storm water, surface waters and groundwater, and it focuses primarily on urban areas and protected wetlands in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes.
The city put the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority in charge of implementing a series of pilot projects in connection with the plan, and NORA director Jeffrey Hebert has overseen projects in the Lower 9th Ward, Algiers and Hollygrove.
In their simplest form, the projects work like rain barrels, collecting and holding water in places and ways that help alleviate stress on the city’s drainage system and open the possibility of putting the water to good use.
A vacant tract in the Gentilly neighborhood, for instance, was made into a “rain garden” planted with bald cypress trees and dwarf palmettos. Workers removed a sidewalk and sculpted the land to allow rainwater to flow into and collect on the site, which can hold nearly 90,000 gallons that will flow gradually into the city’s drainage system.
The land used for the project was among hundreds of properties handed over to NORA by the state Road Home program, and the $38,000 cost of carrying out the project was paid for with a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Neighborhood Initiatives grant.
Fully implementing the urban water plan would include many variations on the rain garden concept, including subsurface water storage and greenways, and could cost billions of dollars if the city actually undertook a revamp of its aging underground drainage system.
For the time being, NORA and other groups likely will continue to seek funding to put some of the plan’s more manageable recommendations into action.
Meanwhile, local entrepreneurial support groups are using incentives to spark innovative ideas for tackling water issues.
For several years, Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation, has partnered with the Idea Village and the Greater New Orleans Foundation in sponsoring an annual “water challenge” competition that features a $10,000 prize for the winning idea.
This year’s finalists were selected from 13 water entrepreneurs in Propeller’s social venture accelerator and from participants in its 12-week mentorship program.
Propeller supports the selected ventures by helping them develop market-based solutions to improve urban water quality, water retention and wetland restoration. The organization has incubated 15 water ventures since 2012.
Here are the winning enterprises from Propeller’s 2015 challenge:
Magnolia Land Partners (Mark Bernstein) Developing critical wetland restoration projects in Louisiana through the sale of mitigation credits; the project secured 1,330 acres of Louisiana wetlands for restoration and permanent protection.
Greenman Dan Inc. (Dan Johnson) An underground rainwater containment system that solves various water runoff problems while reducing landscape irrigation costs; current contracts in place will keep as much as 900,000 gallons of water annually on-site and out of storm drains.
Wetland Resources, LLC (Gary Shaffer and Demetra Kandalepas) Providing storm protection to coastal Louisiana through massive planting of hurricane-resistant trees, the project has planted some 100,000 cypress and tupelo trees as a means of storm protection, with plans to plant tens of thousands annually.
Riverbottom Tech (John Tesvich) Innovative technology for restoring and maintaining coastal areas intelligently and on a sustainable basis; developed a working sediment harvesting prototype installed in South Plaquemines Parish to divert river sediment and restore wetlands.
The Riffle This project by Public Lab raised $50,000 for evaluating water quality using low-cost, do-it-yourself tools that collect, interpret and share valuable data such as oil contamination and water conductivity.
Props to Propeller
During a visit to New Orleans associated with the city’s commemoration of the Katrina-10 anniversary in August, a top U.S. Commerce Department official, Matt Erskine, announced the awarding of a $300,000 grant to Propeller to support startups tackling coastal and urban water issues.
The grant will support Propeller’s 12-week fall accelerator for early-stage startups in water management, including Coastal Rewards, which directs credit card rewards to fund coastal restoration, and Connected Earth Sciences, a vessel-based device measuring real-time data on wetland water quality.