Mike_Fitts

While Hurricane Barry largely sidestepped New Orleans during its long, wet slog across Louisiana’s coast, it served as a reminder of our region’s complicated relationship with water and how that relationship has evolved and must continue to evolve if we are going to successfully live with water.

Water is a paradoxical substance. It can both sustain and destroy life. The same water that built the land beneath our feet and spawned and sustains the region’s fishing, farming, trade, energy and other vital industries also brings extreme disruption and even existential threats given the right, or I should say wrong, meteorological conditions.

Water in the streets, water in our cars, water in our homes. Water, water everywhere. Is it time to find better, smarter ways to live with this inexorable force?

Historically, New Orleans has used levees, floodgates, pumps, pipes, catch basins and other infrastructure to either keep water from entering the city or remove it from our presence as quickly as possible. But what if, instead of focusing all our efforts on combating water, we recognized that, while it can certainly be troublesome, it can also be welcomed as a natural, vital and beneficial part of the cityscape?

This idea was incorporated in the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan a few years ago and is shaping plans and projects in the city and on our campus. Borrowing ideas from the Dutch, we are exploring more sophisticated and innovative ways to deal with water’s threat and promise.

Our architecture faculty and students are working to design buildings that manage water better, as well as reservoirs, rain gardens and other innovations that will help integrate water more naturally and more efficiently into our urban and residential landscapes. Doing so will not only improve the aesthetics of our cities; it will also reduce our overreliance on the Sisyphean task of pumping storm water out of New Orleans after every rain.

Retaining more storm water within the city and its environs can also lessen the rate of subsidence (land sinking) in our region by raising the water table and thus enriching our foundational soils.

Rather than relying exclusively on higher and higher levees, faculty in our Department of River-Coastal Science and Engineering, in partnership with the state, are studying the best methods to harness the natural, land-building capacity of the sediment-rich Mississippi River and redirecting it to the areas of our state that are sinking and eroding the fastest. Building up these wetlands restores a natural barrier against rising tides.

Faculty with Tulane’s ByWater Institute and the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy have been working with the City of New Orleans and communities around the state to help them plan for life with more water, an ever encroaching coastline and longer, more intense storm seasons.

There are numerous other efforts underway at our universities, including supporting initiatives to prevent annual dead zones in the Gulf, discovering better methods of wetland restoration, preservation and water conservation, developing more thoughtful water policy, more robust marine studies and advances in maritime law.

There’s an old saying that is repeated every hurricane season: “It’s not the wind, it’s the water.”

Ingenuity, collaborative research, doggedness and discovery, as well as changes in building codes, have brought about innovations in design that has reduced the impact of hurricane force winds on our homes and other built structures. With the same tenacity and vision, we can make water, upon which generations of Louisianans have made their living, work for us in new, life-sustaining ways.

Levees, pumping stations and clean storm drains will always be needed to hold back and push out the sea, but by recalibrating, re-engineering and reimagining our relationship with water we can create a better, even if it is wetter, future.

Mike Fitts is president of Tulane University.