Hook up a barrel to your home's gutters to catch rain. Use the water later for your garden and yard, thereby shaving a little off your water bill while also combating soil subsidence.

The nonprofit Green Light New Orleans has specialized since its inception after Hurricane Katrina in using such elegantly simple ideas to improve the environment, our pocketbooks and our attitudes.

"We still believe environmental work hurts," said Green Light founder and executive director Andreas Hoffmann. "We start to see through these projects that it doesn't. It's fun."

Installing rain barrels is Green Light's current mission. It has put in 130, with a goal of 300 to honor the city's tricentennial.

Green Light's first project, in 2007, used grants and volunteer labor to go into New Orleans-area homes and replace incandescent light bulbs with Compact Fluorescent Lights. The curlicue CFLs require less electricity to produce the same amount of light, lowering electric bills and reducing a home's carbon footprint.

That program to date has reached 27,000 households, installing 600,000 CFLs, and by Green Light's estimate, saving $27 million in energy costs while keeping 266 million pounds of carbon dioxide out of the environment.

Things can't get much simpler than changing light bulbs. But Hoffman's plans are multilayered. To educate about the environment, Green Light representatives explain the concepts and chart the resulting savings for participating residents. Plus, the use of volunteers makes the process more personal, emphasizing that each of us can do something to help the environment.

Those volunteers, totaling 16,000, have come from all over the country and then taken information back home with them. "If they volunteered, that means they changed bulbs in their own homes, too," Hoffmann said.

Managing water

The rain barrels are based on an age-old concept that's been updated and given a Crescent City twist.

Cisterns were outlawed in New Orleans in 1905 after a major outbreak of yellow fever. The disease is spread by mosquitoes, which found hospitable breeding grounds in the open wooden containers of the day.

Today's versions are covered, with only a small hole for the downspout, and mosquito net is added to the top, where water could collect.

For a city that averages about 64 inches of rain annually, making it one of the wettest in the country, Hoffmann explains the big environmental picture this way: Use of New Orleans' pumping system during heavy rains keeps changing the water table, which encourages soil subsidence.

Last year, 34.2 inches fell in summer alone, making it the rainiest on record since the National Weather Service began keeping records.

"We sink at a dramatic rate, ¼-inch to ¾-inch a year. In my lifetime, that's my height," Hoffmann said. 

Slowing subsidence and learning how to live with water are crucial to a sustainable New Orleans, he added.

Barrels release water back into the soil a little at a time, stabilizing the water table and the ground.

Diverting rainwater can help prevent both street flooding and pollution: City pumps route floodwater to Lake Pontchartrain, carrying with it pollutants picked up along the way. The pumping system also is responsible for 40 percent of municipal carbon dioxide emissions, Green Light says.

Art you can use

On a recent morning, New Orleans homeowner Jwanda Williams welcomed Hoffmann and Brett Thorne, an AmeriCorps member serving with Green Light, for an installation at the home she bought this past August.

One look in the back of the Green Light truck and an exuberant Williams saw that hers wasn't just any old barrel. Artist Rebecca Birtel Madura had transformed it into a colorful garden close-up complete with a frog peeking from behind the leaves.

"The kids are going to freak out," said Williams of her children, Trey, 10, and Skylar, 9.

All of Green Light's 50-gallon barrels are decorated by local artists.

"The art piece is big part of it, especially in this city. It makes perfect sense," Hoffmann said.

"I like the idea that it flows naturally with the house," Williams said of the colors and design.

This element injects some of the fun Hoffmann seeks in his projects.

"Why is she so excited? She says her kids will freak out. That's what you want," he said.

Next door to Williams' home sits a muddy, lumpy empty lot. Her yard lacks proper grading as well.

"An inch of rain, and the side yard is mud," Williams said, adding that water also puddles under her house. She hopes collecting and gradually releasing rain water from the new barrel will help solve those problems.  

Easy installation

Installing a rain barrel is more complicated than screwing in a light bulb, but not by much. What's needed: a base for the barrel, a drill to create a hole in the gutter, an arm to reroute water from inside the gutter and mosquito netting for the barrel's top.

"The hardest part is carrying 60 pounds of pavers to use as the base," Thorne said. "They make it high enough so that people can get a watering can under it (the spigot.)"

The only maintenance required is to use the water, rather than letting the barrel stay full. Attaching a soaker hose is a good way to keep the ground moist.

Madura, the artist, likewise found her part of the process to be simple. Madura works with YaYa and the New Orleans Museum of Art and heard Green Light's call for artists.

The barrel came to her already cleaned and primed. After about four hours of work, she returned it to Green Light for sealing.

"We want to be fun and playful, to brighten up the neighborhood," she said. "It's fun, no stress."

And in a final twist of Crescent City cultural synchronicity with the program, the barrels themselves come at cost from Perrone & Sons, a food wholesaler whose owners also ran the old Progress Grocery on Decatur Street. The barrels originally held olives destined for the company's Progress Grocery Olive Salad, used all around town on muffulettas, a New Orleans favorite. 

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