The Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan
Greater New Orleans has always contended with flooding from rainfall, but new challenges—from changing climate and rising seas, to human-induced sinking of the land, to an increasingly overburdened and outdated drainage system—will test the city’s ability to adapt, survive, and thrive.
New Orleans is not new to excessive precipitation; the city is one of the wettest in the United States, averaging more than 60 inches of rain a year. However, our existing solutions for managing stormwater are insufficient for yesterday’s rainfall, and tomorrow’s forecast looks far worse.
Thanks to climate change, we are seeing more rain more often. And as the past year has proven, when you combine this ever-increasing climate risk with over-development (less green space) and an inadequate drainage system, the results can be catastrophic.
Our current approach to flood prevention (forced drainage) involves complete reliance on a resource-intensive, outdated, and overburdened drainage system. Even when this system works as intended, it creates a vicious cycle with damaging consequences.
When rainwater falls on New Orleans, it is captured, piped, and pumped out as quickly and completely as possible. But a system designed to pump out every last drop of water leaves our ground unnaturally and unsafely dry, causing the continued sinking of our land, known as subsidence.
Not only does subsidence result in cracked streets and broken foundations, it also brings us further below sea level, increases our flood risk, and places even greater burden on our pumps.
When it rains we flood; when it’s dry we sink.
And with our existing approach, solving for one problem exacerbates the other. The solution is not as simple as building more or bigger pumps. In fact, doubling the pumping capacity would only solve 40% of the problem, would be cost prohibitive, and would only worsen subsidence.
Instead, we must replace the current and entrenched mentality of “pave, pipe, and pump” with the idea of “slow, store, and use”: hold water where it falls, slow the flow into our drainage system, and store large volumes for infiltration and repurposing.
This will involve a variety of initiatives and retrofits across public and private properties, including:
In this re-envisioned system, grey and green infrastructure work together in a more comprehensive, efficient, and effective approach to urban water management. By pumping only when necessary and allowing as much rainwater as possible to infiltrate our soils, we can reduce flooding risk, improve the efficiency of our drainage system, and restore groundwater levels to curtail subsidence.
The Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan: Background
In 2010, the State of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development Disaster Recovery Unit funded Greater New Orleans, Inc. (GNO, Inc.) to partner with local and international experts, neighborhood groups, and civic leaders to develop a comprehensive, integrated, and sustainable Water Management Strategy by and for the people of Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard parishes.
The resulting Urban Water Plan set a long-term vision for 21st-century urban water management, with a focus on mitigating flooding and subsidence threats while creating economic value and enhancing quality of life.
Since the Urban Water Plan’s release in 2013, the region’s collective understanding of urban water challenges and solutions has increased significantly. We’ve learned more about what resilience will require. We’ve moved ideas and projects from concept to reality. We’ve established critical new partnerships at home and around the globe. And we’ve suffered the emotional and financial costs that preview what’s to come if we fail to act.
From the river to the lake to the canals in between, water is everywhere in New Orleans. To ensure a safe and prosperous future for this region, we must learn to live with water and recognize that resilience—and survival— will require constant adaption.
The importance of mitigating our significant and mounting stormwater risk cannot be overstated. The question it raises is an existential one: Will New Orleans survive another 300 years? If we continue with business as usual, the answer will almost certainly be no. The potential costs of inaction are significant:
- Loss of life
- Loss of / damage to property
- Higher insurance rates (or inability to procure a policy at all)
- Broken infrastructure and higher maintenance / repair costs
- Business disruption, lost wages, and lost productivity
- Outmigration of talent, tax dollars, investment capital, and economic opportunity
Flooding due to rainfall and damaged infrastructure due to subsidence are expected to cost New Orleans more than $10B over the next 50 years.
Further, even if we’re able to avoid an extreme, Harvey-scale event with the potential to wash much of the region off the map, inaction against more modest (but highly probable) rainfall events means New Orleans will quickly become too dangerous, too risky, too burdensome, and too expensive a place to live and work. As a result, residents and businesses will leave, and the influx of talent and investment that has defined our region’s re
We must figure out how to survive, but in doing so, we can also thrive.
New Orleans is not the only city in the country or world facing heightened threat from stormwater. With continued local investment in research and innovation around urban water management solutions, we have the opportunity to develop—and, crucially, to export— expertise in this area.
Not only will this be a positive and high-profile brand-builder for New Orleans, but the creation of a new, exportable industry will also serve as a powerful economic growth driver for our region.
Consider the Dutch, for example: approximately 4% of their national GDP comes from selling their water management services, architecture, engineering, and know-how. The implementation and maintenance of urban water management initiatives will also require the development and training of a new local workforce.
Doing this right means building an entirely new industry sector for our region, and we’ll need the labor to support it. This means putting more of our residents to work, for local businesses, in jobs that are available and accessible to all New Orleanians and cannot be outsourced.
Meanwhile, mitigating flooding and subsidence risks will keep tax-paying residents and businesses in the region. And by inspiring confidence that we are addressing one of our region’s biggest and most widely known risks, we will be able to attract new residents, businesses, and investments to continue driving our economy forward. In this way, the Urban Water Plan should be thought of as a reinvestment strategy for New Orleans, one that encourages repopulation, induces development, and provides a competitive advantage over other cities across the country.
Finally, embracing water as an asset carries significant qualitative upside for the residents of New Orleans. Green infrastructure can lower ambient air temperatures and improve air and water quality. Developing new waterfront properties and re-envisioning many of our city’s under-utilized public spaces will increase property values, create new recreational space for community enjoyment, and beautify our cityscape. And many of the projects and retrofits proposed in the Urban Water Plan will bring investment and revitalization to New Orleans’s highest-need neighborhoods.
The Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan has received national and global recognition, including:
- The American Planning Association: 2015 National Planning Excellence Award for Environmental Planning for the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan
- The NADO 2014 Innovation Award for the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan App
- The NADO 2013 Innovation Award for the Greater New Orleans Comprehensive, Integrated and Sustainable Water Management Strategy
The entire volume library which makes up the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan can be found at livingwithwater.com
Order the full printed copy of documents online, delivered to your home or office: