Learning to Cope with Stormwater in New Orleans

The Rosa Keller Library Branch in New Orleans models key stormwater management features the rest of the city could use. (Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans)

The Rosa Keller branch of the New Orleans public library system is a living example of nascent efforts to more effectively manage stormwater in New Orleans, with its “rain gardens” aimed at capturing and slowing down heavy rains. The rain gardens are actually deep pots, some three feet deep and several feet across, that sit in the front of the library. Living in them: plants that thrive in watery environments like irises and cypress trees.

Stormwater is a particularly vexing issue in the city, where the soil contains a high percentage of clay. That means instead of absorbing water, the ground tends to shunt rainfall elsewhere. When heavy rains hit, as they are doing more frequently, it can overwhelm the city’s fragile drainage and pumping system and cause widespread flooding. Thousands died in Hurricane Katrina when the city’s levee protection system broke, but even unnamed storms are creating flooding hazards in the city.

But measures like those at the library, designed to hold water, or at least slow it down on the way to the city’s drainage systems, can touch some raw nerves.

“A lot of people have PTSD from Hurricane Katrina and other floods and hurricanes … the idea of saying ‘no we want we want to keep water on your property’ just freaks people out,” says Colleen Butler, who chairs the research and policy committee of the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans.

The collaborative grew out of the Dutch Dialogues fostered by New Orleans architect David Waggonner, which also sparked the creation of the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan.

“There was a growing organic network of people who became aware of and concerned about urban water management in post-Katrina New Orleans,” Nathan Lott, director of the collaborative, says of the group’s inception. “Especially after repairing the levees and shoring up the hurricane risk-reduction system, there was the question of ‘what are we going to do with all the rain that falls inside this bowl that we’ve repaired? We’ve built a better bowl, but it still fills up with rain.’”

The collaborative brings together a diverse group of people. Some, like Butler, who has a Ph.D. in biology from Tufts University, are professionals focused on environmental management issues. Others, Lott says, are business and community leaders who see how water issues affect their friends, families and livelihoods.

The group brings a pro-active mindset to New Orleans’ water challenges.

“I originally was doing ecology and conservation biology … I really wanted to save the world,” Butler says. “But with that, it was kind of disappointing because you mostly study how species are going extinct and how environments are falling apart. And I wanted to really be on the front of preventing those problems rather than just studying them after they’ve already happened.”

As intense storms threaten to overwhelm storm drainage systems in communities across the nation, New Orleans’ water collaborative offers one model for local engagement around urban water issues.

Lott says that over the past three years, the landscape for the group’s work has shifted dramatically. Now, instead of doing community education about stormwater management, which local not-for-profits have stepped into, it focuses primarily on policy issues. It has also dealt with the “growing pains” of a young organization, for example, debating whether to remain an informal network or to formalize the structure; whether to adopt more top-down or horizontal decision-making processes as a group.

“The multi-disciplinary network adds value,” Lott says. “Our role is evolving from less of a voice in the wilderness for this stuff to more of a coordinator and advocate for what’s at the leading edge.”

Restoring trust in the city is part of the advocacy challenge. In the aftermath of Katrina, former city official Jeff Thomas says leaders made serious mistakes in how they handled the issue.

“Early redevelopment conversations were being done mostly by civic and business leaders who had the time and mandate to do so, whereas a lot of New Orleans was still not back in the city. And when they were, they were digging mud out of their houses and rebuilding,” says Thomas, describing the dynamic in the city in the initial months after Hurricane Katrina. Thomas worked with the New Orleans city government on community development issues and environmental policy after the storm.

Some of the ideas that came out of these discussions, Thomas says, “were wildly simplistic and unrealistic and some were more thoughtful and accurate. Somewhere in between was the presentation of a green dot.”

In post-Katrina New Orleans, the “green dot,” a digital mapping tool that was ostensibly used to identify areas that could be developed as green space to absorb heavy rains, became seen as the epitome of cynical, top-down management that would displace long-time residents and businesses. After resident outcries, the city discarded the green dot and any plans around it.

Although rain gardens like the one at the library demonstrate that progress is occurring, Butler says that there are still significant challenges. Money represents one of those hurdles.

“A lot of what we’ve done so far has relied on federal grants, which is great that that’s available, but that’s not a sustainable way forward,” Butler says. “It’s really expensive to deal with 64 inches of rain in a year no matter how smart you do it. It’s really expensive and because we haven’t invested in our infrastructure for the past many, many years, it’s really an uphill climb.”

Thomas agrees. “I think by some estimates there’s $250 million in large-scale green infrastructure projects that are in the design phase throughout the city and some of that a rather large neighborhood scale,” he says. “[Some are] first-of-their-kind concepts in terms of United States. But they’re not yet real. I think, tellingly, they’re also all reliant on disaster funding federal disaster money. So we still haven’t figured out a way to localize the origins of these concepts, to say nothing of how to pay for the maintenance of that.”

Echoing Thomas’s thoughts about sustainable funding, Lott says that the group is working with some suburban parishes, to encourage “looking beyond the current round of federal grant funded projects to how will we do policies locally that create sustainable long-term funding sources for municipal green infrastructure.”

Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.

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