The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority took this empty lot on Forshey Street and made it into a rain garden. Credit: Courtesy / New Orleans Redevelopment Authority

One sign that Prisca Weems represents something new and surprising in New Orleans is her never-before-seen title in city government: Stormwater Manager.

And if that doesn’t get your attention, the things Weems is saying certainly will.

She’s is talking about how residents have to take responsibility for the water falling on their property, about how they need to see rain as an ally not just an enemy, about how switching from pipes to green infrastructure to handle rain water represents not just a challenge but an opportunity for economic growth.

Then, even more surprisingly, she says the city is listening.

Her evidence:

  • The Sewerage & Water Board now has a Green Infrastructure section and a Green Infrastructure Plan.
  • The city’s first-ever zoning ordinance that requires some residents to collect and hold the rain falling on their property.
  • About $2.5 million in grant money is available to help residents learn to control rainwater.
  • Green infrastructure specialists are imbedded at city agencies so new projects conform to the new goals.
  • The New Orleans Water Collaborative, a civic group formed to promote the change and provide professional assistance, is now 100 members strong and growing.
  • More than 30 neighborhood associations have contacted her in the last 10 months to pursue that strategy.
  • Rain gardens and water barrels are appearing all across the city.

The sudden change has surprised even her.

“What we’re asking of the residents is a radical rethink of the way we manage water,” Weems said. “What we’re communicating to them is that when it comes to our water issues, government can’t do it all, that each of us have to be responsible for the rain that falls on our property.

“And it’s been amazing to watch the speed with which the city is embracing it.”

Chroniclers of post-Katrina New Orleans have been quick to label any break this tradition-bound city takes with past habits as “revolutionary.”

But this one might actually deserve the term.

Ideas like  “conservation” and “holistic planning” were about as Nu Awlins as grilled tofu and kale burgers. “Green infrastructure” was your St. Paddy’s Day underwear, and “water management” meant stretching your bourbon with a shot from the faucet. For a city that prides itself on being an island of different in a sea of sameness, change was usually seen as a pejorative fit for places like Atlanta or Houston or Dallas or … well, everywhere else.

But having your home marinate in 5 feet of water for three hot summer weeks can influence your thinking. So 10 years after federal levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, discussing green infrastructure and water management has become as New Orleans as parking your car on the neutral ground during heavy thunderstorms.

In fact, the Katrina disaster was the catalyst for the greening of New Orleans, those involved said. With billions coming from FEMA to help rebuild storm protection and drainage systems laid low by the flood, the city had an opportunity to look at alternatives.

“Katrina showed us we didn’t want to build back what we had – what failed,” Weems said. “We knew we had to look at what we needed in order to thrive, not just survive. And green infrastructure is a large part of that.”

Keeping water in the city longer

Just what does green infrastructure mean in New Orleans?

The short answer is using the landscape to store rainwater during thunderstorms rather than relying on pipes, canals and pumps  – “gray infrastructure” – to shuttle it into Lake Pontchartrain as quickly as possible.

That change has two primary goals.

By slowing the flow of water to the drainage pipes and canals, it reduces the risk the pumps will be overwhelmed – the prime cause of past floods.

And holding the water on the landscape allows more of it to seep back into the ground keeping the spongy delta soils beneath the city from drying out and shrinking, the prime cause of New Orleans costly subsidence problems.

“It really has been a quantum shift in thinking,” said Keith Twitchell, president of The Committee for a Better New Orleans, a civic group that has been pushing the change. “There is more shifting that has to occur, of course. But it’s fair to say this city has finally realized we can’t pump our way to safety. We’ve really embraced green infrastructure.”

Weems’ is the first city official whose job isn’t to get all the rain out – but to keep some of it in.

“We’ll always need the gray infrastructure,” Weems said. “But experience has shown we can’t rely on that alone.”

New Orleans’ 5,000 miles of drainage pipes and canals and its pumping stations – among the largest in the world – can handle an inch of rainfall in the first half hour of a storm, but then a half inch every hour after that. Sometimes it hasn’t been enough, resulting in flooding and millions of dollars in damages.

The system’s challenges are heightened by the city’s subsidence; nearly half of the metro area now rests below sea level.

“I think people have known for some time we would never be able to pump our way to safety – there isn’t the technical expertise or the money to do that,” Twitchell said.

“But I think the real change came after Katrina when we began to also understand something else: All that pumping was actually creating many of our problems, not making us safer.  People began connecting the dots.”

A growing understanding and acceptance

Visits to the Netherlands to see how the Dutch have managed to live sustainably as a coastal nation below sea level led to development of the Greater New Orleans Water Plan, a detailed proposal to rework the city’s relationship with water.

In 2011, at Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s request, civic and business leaders formed The New Orleans Citizen Sewer, Water and Brain System Reform Task Force. In 2012 they presented a detailed report on what was wrong with the city’s drainage policies and how to fix them.

And to ensure those green shoots continue to grow, Twitchell’s nonprofit group joined with several others and put together the water collaborative. It has two goals: To press government to follow through with policies and provide the needing funding and to share expertise between business and community groups enacting the changes.

By 2012, it was clear the green wave rolling through post-Katrina New Orleans was coming from its soggy grass roots.

“I don’t know of another example where citizen action preceded policy to the scale it has here it,” Weems said. “It really inspired, informed and engaged with city agencies. They have had a substantial impact on the types of policies that are in development now.”

But while the city might have been embracing change, critical steam for the required policy changes and funding was provided by an unlikely source: a federal lawsuit.

In 2013 the Sewerage and Water Board modified a consent decree of a decades-old lawsuit by the Environmental Protection Agency over its leaky sewage treatment system. In the new agreement the board committed to develop a green infrastructure plan, that would  emphasize implantation of best management practices to retain, reuse and delay stormwater while simultaneously improving water quality, mitigating flooding and lessening the burden on the drainage system.”

It also pledged that the Urban Water Plan would guide its changes, and agreed to award $500,000 a year for five years for green infrastructure projects.

One sign of that commitment is the role the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has played in moving green infrastructure forward.  Handed an inventory of 5,000 properties the state acquired after Katrina, the agency has turned eight of them into rain gardens. These projects reshape open lots or back yards so they can collect, hold and slowly release rainwater.

Thirty-four other lots have become part of the Growing Green project, which leases or sells the properties for use as community gardens.

The agency said 110 more properties eventually would join one of those two projects.

Many of the grants the Sewerage & Water Board has awarded for green infrastructure have gone to education-themed projects.

“This really is a cultural shift,” Weems said. “So education is very important.”

The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has taken a number of empty lots and converted them into rain gardens to ease the load on the city’s pumping stations.

Some of those projects are focused at schools, where developers hope to teach the importance of living with water in New Orleans.

One example is the playground at KIPP Central City, where the group Ripple Effect, a non-profit dedicated to working with educators, teaches “water literacy.” During rainstorms the courtyard playground at KIPP used to turn into a muddy pond.

Working with architects from Waggoner and Ball, the project built one small hill covered with synthetic grass that steers rainwater to two low spots — rain gardens — that capture the water. Cypress trees and other water-loving plants were planted in the gardens. The rest of the courtyard was covered with crushed rock, which helps some of the rain to drain into the ground.

“The teachers turned the construction project into a learning experience for the students,” said Claire Anderson, Ripple Effect co-founder.

“And now that it’s finished, every rainfall the students can see how this all works. They can see the rain gardens filling with water, and then watch them empty over time and they know this is why their playground can be used.”

Other grantees are building educational exhibits in neighborhoods. Tulane University’s City Center has won approval for a structure showing how rainfall can be managed as part of its Hollygrove Greenline Project, which is putting an abandoned right-of-way to community use.

And Water Wise NOLA, a group of professionals and enthusiasts, offers workshops to teach builders and homeowners how to incorporate green infrastructure in their property.

“We have billions of dollars of rebuilding that is still needed in this city, and one of the problems we face is that many of the professionals who will do that work — the engineers, designers — have never been taught green infrastructure techniques,” Twitchell said.

In fact, Weems views the city’s move to water literacy and green infrastructure as a golden opportunity for economic expansion, not just a survival imperative.

“The work that needs to be done will require employment on its own, so that is job creation,” she said. “But we will also be building an industry we can export.

“With climate change, many other cities will be facing some of these same challenges, and we are developing the technology – the expertise in design and construction – that they will need.”

Bob Marshall

From 2013 to 2017, Bob Marshall covered environmental issues for The Lens, with a special focus on coastal restoration and wetlands. While at The Times-Picayune, his work chronicling the people, stories...