Old And New Strategies Needed To Manage Water In New Orleans

Sep 4, 2014

New Orleans, 1913 map, showing system of drainage culverts, canals and pumping stations.
Credit Times Picayune archives

When it comes annual rainfall, New Orleans is the third wettest city in the country, next to Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama. Historically, this city below sea level has dealt with large amounts of rain by trying to keep as much water out as possible. Now, urban planners, land conservationists and city officials are trying out new strategies to manage water. Keeping more water in, rather than trying to pump it out, may be better for the city than we thought.

Renia Ehrenfeucht stands on her front stoop looking out onto Laharpe Street in the 7th Ward, with typical summer rain. “The water’s high, and half a block up the street there’s definitely water collecting underneath a truck,” says Ehrenfeucht. “But by New Orleans standards things aren’t bad!”

Ehrenfeucht is an associate professor of planning and urban studies at the University of New Orleans. She focuses on how cities deal with population loss, vacant land, changing neighborhoods, and how the government adapts.

“As people lived in cities, they became more dense and the conditions became really bad. And that’s why people responded with street paving and draining systems. All of these came about because people were living in conditions that they said were unlivable to live in and that’s what we’re saying now.”

We have managed water here in New Orleans, says Ehrenfeucht. We receive an average of 64 inches of rainfall each year.

Bridget Kelly has these calculations on her mind. She’s a board member for The Land Trust of Louisiana, which serves to preserve and protect natural areas and open green space. Kelly’s focus right now is an open lot on the corner of Mazant and Royal streets in the Bywater, across the street from The Joint BBQ.

Bywater Square showing water pooling after an afternoon of rain.
Credit Bridget Kelly

A few different developers are looking to build housing units on the Bywater Square, but Kelly is determined to keep it green space.

Well we initially had the idea of having a park or a square, and what we realized was that at this point and time the focus of conversations around land are enmeshed with the concept of water management," she says. "And you really can’t talk about land if you’re not talking about water.”

Kelly dreamed of a park, but she had to embrace water management to get there. If she talked about a nice place for kids to play, she got lukewarm responses. But if she talked about the land as a tool, ears went up.

It became clear that when we talked with this project with people throughout the city, they brought up issues related to green infrastructure, stormwater management, flooding in the city, and what the opportunity for this parcel would be.”

That means investing in things like special swings that help channel water somewhere useful.

“When it’s raining and children are not out swinging on the swing-set they are actually serving as a funnel to direct the water straight underground. So these funnels up at the top — water comes down the pole, goes straight underground, and are used to capture even more water. So that’s a vision of what can be done in the playground area.”

Cedric Grant is the executive director of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board. He says the way we manage water does need to change.

Historically they dealt with managing water by keeping it out, or pumping it out if it gets in, because we’re below sea level," Grant says. "The new philosophy is that there’s no way we can build a robust enough system to be effective in keeping the water out, so we need to ‘live with water.'”

Instead of spending money to keep water out, the Sewerage and Water Board is looking at how to retain and hold water. That way rain won't all rush to the drainage system and overload it. In New Orleans East, for instance, some new roads have been laid down using a special permeable pavement, allowing the water to seep into the ground instead of flowing straight to the pipes. But Cedric Grant isn’t turning his back on what the city already knows how to do.

Construction of a new drainage canal on S. Claiborne Avenue as of August 2014.
Credit Sewage and Water Board

We’re spending $800 million to upgrade drainage," he says. "We’re building drainage canals that are big enough to drive a bus through, but at the same time we need to also have the strategy to retain water at the subsurface. We’ll be much more resilient than we’ve been in the past. So it’s a marrying of both strategies: we can’t forget what we have as we begin to build and replace.”

Back in the Bywater, Bridget Kelly and the Land Trust of Louisiana have a one year lease on Bywater Square, but the term ends in October. She’s hoping the lease will be renewed, and wants the city’s support.

If we don’t act — if our leadership doesn’t act — then this is an endangered space and this will be gone. And others like it will be bought up and developed, and we’re kicking this can down the road. And we’re gonna be in a situation where we don’t have the land that we need to capture the water that we need in order to survive. The leadership needs to show up now to stake the claim for what we need to do.”

The City Council is currently reviewing a new stormwater management section of the comprehensive zoning ordinance. If passed, any property owner who wants to redevelop a site more than 5 acres in size would need to have a water management plan.

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Kabacoff Family Foundation.