Last summer, business groups, architects and engineers launched a campaign to change how the New Orleans area thinks about rain, hoping to turn water from a threat into an asset for the region.
Their proposal, known as the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, is an ambitious document that envisions spending billions of dollars over decades in pursuit of a new philosophy of stormwater management in the region. Rather than putting the focus on pumping rainwater out, the plan calls for looking at ways to retain and manage some of that water to slow the soil subsidence that plagues the region and to provide amenities for residents.
A year later, groups supportive of that effort have organized themselves and launched the Greater New Orleans Water Collaborative. Compared with the ambitious scope of the $6.2 billion plan, the new group is starting with modest goals: raising awareness, educating residents and focusing on small changes average people can make to improve how water is handled in the region.
“So many times when we talk about water management, it’s all focused around infrastructure and public entities or quasi-public entities,” said Arthur Johnson, chief executive officer of the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. “This brings it to the ground level.”
About 40 groups are involved in the initiative, which formally kicks off with a news conference at 3 p.m. Friday near the southern end of Bayou St. John, at Orleans Avenue and North Jefferson Davis Parkway. That will be followed by a “happy hour” at Parkway Bakery and Tavern for those looking for more information about working with the organization.
The New Orleans Urban Water Plan, put together over two years by a team of local and Dutch consultants working on a $2.5 million grant from Greater New Orleans Inc., aims to instill a philosophy of “living with water.” It calls for managing water within the region, focusing on projects that would allow it to be slowly reabsorbed into the ground to combat subsidence and reimagining canals as potential areas for recreation and aesthetic projects.
To help that effort, the collaborative will try to bring different community organizations together.
“This will be a clearinghouse where people from outside, people from the community, people from around the region can see on a map or see on a calendar what all the initiatives are,” said Aron Chang, an interim member of the group’s steering committee. Those resources will be available on the group’s website, nolawater.org.
The group has been working on a variety of initiatives including training and public outreach, developing plans that teachers can use in classrooms with their students and weighing in on New Orleans’ proposed new comprehensive zoning ordinance from the perspective of water management, said Chang, who works for Waggonner & Ball Architects, which has been one of the leaders in the effort.
In the meantime, many of the group’s members are focusing on getting smaller-scale efforts up and running.
Johnson pointed to efforts his organization has made to get residents to install rain gardens, which direct stormwater to gardens rather than letting it spill into the streets. Directing rain into soil where it will be gradually absorbed, rather than expecting it to run over pavement and eventually into the drainage system, can help alleviate the burden on the stormwater system and reduce flooding, Johnson said.
While large and expensive infrastructure projects are still necessary to meet the goals of the initiative, Johnson said, smaller projects like rain gardens — which cost less than $100 — are a good temporary step to improve how the city handles water.
“We’re working within communities to help people on the ground to do things that are not expensive and you don’t need a bulldozer to do,” Johnson said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.