Overcoming fear of water in New Orleans, one plot, one class at a time

New Orleans is tormented by water.

Every summer residents turn to the Gulf of Mexico, scanning for the next hurricane to cross the horizon. But more than that, a daily morning downpour can instantly incapacitate many of neighborhoods by flooding the streets.

A wariness of water long ago became a part of life here. For that reason the city’s massive drainage pumps race to sling pouring rain into Lake Pontchartrain as fast as possible during almost every storm. And Hurricane Katrina turned thousands of nightmares into one shocking reality of what water can do to a city in a bowl when federal levees failed.

But there is a movement, albeit one of baby steps, that hopes to transform New Orleans from a city that recoils from water to one that embraces it — with new ways for slowing, directing and containing storm runoff.

The signs of a shift are small, but in coming weeks they could pop up in unlikely places: on that long-abandoned lot at the end of the street where a neighbor’s house once stood 10 years ago. A classroom in New Orleans’ ever-evolving education system. In a community center finally clear of evidence of its own flooding after Katrina.

And most important, on the expense sheets of intergovernmental agencies.

The Sewerage & Water Board, an entity not normally known for swift shifts in policy, will consider later this month granting $384,100 to five organizations to teach about and build “green infrastructure” as a better way to manage New Orleans’ run-ins with storms.

Much of the country is “starving” for water, and “we’re bragging about how fast we can get rid of it. And it’s expensive for us to get rid of it,” said Joseph Becker, general superintendent of the water board. “If we can find ways to minimize the amount of water we need to pump, or to delay, to extend the amount of time we have available for us to pump, then that’s going to be a significant cost savings to all the customers.”


Madeline Goddard, the S&WB’s deputy superintendent, defines green infrastructure this way: “using nature to mimic storm water management. So you’re using the dirt and the plants, and you’re putting it all together in such a way that you’re actually reutilizing the water, filtering the water and detaining the water by not creating any (negative) environmental impact.”

One non-profit promoter of green infrastructure, Groundwork New Orleans, has begun to put that to practice. In a lot adjacent to the Healing Center on St Claude Avenue in the Marigny, it has installed knolls and dips to form a “bioswale,” a sort of modified ditch that holds rainwater for short periods while water-loving plants filter it as it soaks into the ground.

Known as the Earth Lab, Groundwork uses the lot to teach alternative approaches to water management, said Alicia Neal, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“I think it’s important, No. 1, because here we have such a fear of water, such a discomfort with water that it’s important for the students to understand how to use water in a more productive way,” Neal said. “It’s amazing how much a light goes on even when you talk to everyday people.”

Groundwork now hopes to expand its footprint in the city, with the help of $100,000 from the S&WB, by building a similar site called the Lower9 Earth Lab at the corner of Caffin Avenue and North Prieur Street.

“That was one that actually demonstrates all three types (of projects) that we were looking for,” Goddard said, referring to the S&WB’s grant requirement that proposals educate either the young or older residents or install demonstrative examples of green infrastructure in neighborhoods. “It was one of the few projects that had that, and that was one of the reasons it was selected.”

The S&WB received 24 proposals in January and winnowed the list to five possibilities that met its full criteria. Goddard said it was a promising start, but she added that she was disappointed it had not drawn proposals from several neighborhoods, including Lakeview, Algiers and eastern New Orleans.

Besides Groundwork, other prospective recipients include:

  • The Louisiana Urban Stormwater Coalition, which could receive $100,000 for a green infrastructure education program
  • Parkway Partners Program, which could receive $26,350 to educate residents and landscape professionals about managing storm water.
  • The Land Trust for Louisiana, which is slated to receive $82,750 for a storm water management project in Broadmoor.
  • The Ripple Effects Project,* which could get $75,000 to educate students in public schools about New Orleans’ unique relationship with water.

The full water board is expected to consider the grants at its June 18 meeting.

There are also seven other proposals in line for the remaining $115,900 available in S&WB green infrastructure grants. Each grant recipient will be responsible for maintaining any properties they use to build rain gardens, bioswales and other water management projects, she said.

“One of my biggest concerns from seeing what has happened in the past is that they build a rain garden and it becomes a weed garden,” Goddard said. “So they had to show me who was going to maintain them as part of the proposals.”

Called “The Ripple Effect,” that proposal is the brainchild of Claire Anderson, a teacher at the KIPP Central City Primary school, and Aron Chang, an architect with the Uptown firm Waggonner & Ball.

“They’re really excited to go,” Goddard said. “I told people the proposal itself was full of energy. You could almost see it coming off the paper.”

Their plan is to educate teachers this summer about New Orleans’ relationship with water and storms so that they can shape basic lesson plans for math, science and other subjects around water management in the city. They hope to implement the program at KIPP from Kindergarten through the fourth grade next year, and if they achieve success, then to expand.

“The long-term goal is that by the time every New Orleanian graduates, they will have an understanding of these issues,” Chang said.

The money to pay for these initiatives will come from the S&WB’s drainage budget. It could also be codified in the latest proposed revision to a 16-year-old federal order demanding the water board clean up the city’s broken sewer system.

The S&WB has asked the feds for a third extension on deadlines to fix leaky underground sewer pipes in three of the city’s nine basins.

The proposed arrangement would push back completion dates for the following basins:

  • The South Shore basin along the lakefront from March 31, 2015 to Oct. 31, 2021
  • The Mid City basin from July 31, 2015 to July 31, 2023
  • The Carrollton basin from Jan. 1, 2015 to Oct. 31, 2025

Repairs in the Ninth Ward basin and New Orleans East basins would remain on schedule for 2018 and 2019, respectively. The other four basins have been completed, court documents show.

The sewerage consent decree was previously amended and extended twice before, in 2010 and in April 2013, in reaction to setbacks in the repair schedule attributed to Katrina’s devastation.

Should the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency agree to the latest proposed changes, the S&WB also will be obligated to spend $500,000 a year for the next five years on green infrastructure projects and programs.

“We’re hopeful that’s seed money that’s really going to take off throughout the city,” Becker said. “That other organizations are going to see the benefit and put their own money in and work on their own types of programs that will benefit everyone.”


The water board’s green infrastructure investments are part of a larger evolution in public policy when it comes to management of water in southeastern Louisiana.

The S&WB is a partner with other government agencies, including the mayor’s office, the Port of New Orleans, the Orleans Levee District, Jefferson Parish and the Louisiana Department of Transportation, in a concerted effort to fight polluted storm water from infiltrating the Mississippi River’s natural basin. Known as the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System program, or MS4, it manages permits for construction and demolition projects to minimize untreated runoff from entering city street drains.

To find the properties to build green infrastructure demonstrations like the Earth Lab, interested nonprofits looking for grants have turned to the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.

NORA, the city agency tasked with managing the state’s controversial Road Home program, has set aside 155 vacant lots for green infrastructure projects. That includes the Caffin Avenue site for the new Earth Lab.

Nonprofits can enter into one-year leases with the agency to prove they can manage storm water and maintain the properties. Those contracts can then be made eligible for extension with the possibility that the nonprofits can buy the lots if NORA sees success.

NORA Executive Director Jeff Hebert described NORA’s promotion of green infrastructure projects not as a sign that the agency is turning away from its main mission — to put houseless lots back into commerce — but as a long-term solution to find a use for properties that would otherwise sit fallow. Most of the sites eligible for projects are in Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods, two neighborhoods badly damaged during the flooding that followed Katrina. Hebert said rain gardens and bioswales could help alleviate some street flooding until interest in real estate there picks up. NORA and other agencies are working on design plans to redo the Dwyer Canal between the two neighborhoods as an example of green infrastructure and storm water management.

“The biggest concern is the long-term stewardship of these lots,” Hebert said. “And one of the things that we know, talking to our colleagues nationally, if you do some beatification on these lots, and of course in New Orleans we’re doing beautification for storm water issues, these lots can attract more families to these neighborhoods.”

The S&WB’s and NORA’s efforts dovetail into the recently unveiled Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, a holistic approach slowing the speed with which storm water is pumped out of New Orleans. David Waggonner, a principal architect at Waggonner & Ball and a chief author of the water management plan, called for greater awareness of water in a city surrounded by it.

“The hope is we create a bunch of kids that treat water innately as beaver does,” he said. “This stuff needs to be internalized.”

Waggonner said projects like those the S&WB is considering are on the right path.

“I hope these programs help people to understand their place on this lily pad,” he said.

Read the full article here: http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2014/06/overcoming_fear_of_water_in_ne.html