Stormwater and New Orleans

A summary of the beginnings of Living with Water in New Orleans and the UC's involvement with stormwater management.

bayou-with-joggersIn recent times, stormwater management in New Orleans has been characterized by regularly overwhelmed drainage systems, excessive paving and pumping that has depleted groundwater levels and led to a sinking city, and urban water assets being wasted while hidden behind walls, underground, or pumped into the river and lake. All of these issues and the failure of traditional infrastructure (levees, pipes and pumps) to protect the city from Hurricane Katrina, continuous flooding, and subsidence has led to a shift in mindset regarding the most effective and thoughtful way to manage stormwater in South Louisiana. It is clear that the single-minded approach of rushing stromwater over pavement, into pipes and pumping it out of the city needs to be reevaluated.

History

In September of 2013, Waggonner & Ball Architects released the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. The plan was a result of the Dutch Dialogues and the culmination of the collaborative efforts of officials, professionals, advocates, and community members who began to question current practices while taking a serious look at the place of natural processes in the urban environment. The GNO Urban Water Plan calls for a tandem approach to stormwater management that utilizes natural processes to decrease reliance on and take pressure off of grey infrastructure systems, while celebrating the region’s abundant water resources.

Natural processes slow, store and filter stormwater where it July_2012_2falls, allowing it to return to the groundwater system. Natural process based solutions are commonly known as stormwater BMP’s and/or “green infrastructure” and include systems such as canals and waterways, rain gardens, permeable pavement, floating streets, retention ponds, constructed wetlands and other bioretention systems that slow, store and filter stormwater. Programs underway in cities such as Seattle, Portland and Philadelphia are prime examples of the potential held by these sorts of solutions.

Action

Since the release of the Water Plan, momentum has begun to build here in New Orleans and many organizations around town working to promote sustainable stormwater management:

  • Non-profits such as Global Green, Parkway Partners, Water Works, and the Urban Conservancy are working to educate the public (including public officials) and implement exciting programs around the city.
  • Private firms including Waggonner & Ball, Evans & Lighter, and Dana Brown & Assoc. are working to transform both the public and private domain through innovative stormwater design practices.
  • Local government is contributing to large-scale green infrastructure implementation. Sewage and Water Board’s Green Infrastructure RFP 2014 is funding 7 initiatives whose focus is stormwater management and will invest $500,000 a year up until 2018 for a total of $2.5 million invested in green infrastructure projects. Article 23 places stormwater management requirements that emphasize BMP’s on all new commercial developments in Orleans Parish that are over 10,000 sq. ft.

On September 26, 2014, the GNO Urban Water Collaborative held its inaugural press conference on the banks of Bayou St. John in Mid-City. The collaborative represents one hundred organizations working together to address critical water issues throughout the region and the sort of collective effort that will necessary to move New Orleans towards the more “safe, sustainable and beautiful future” outlined by the Urban Water Plan.

Supporting sustainable stormwater management in New Orleans can be achieved through large scale infrastructure and small scale interventions on private properties. To get involved with this important issue through volunteering or improving stormwater management on your own property, contact us at dana@urbanconservancy.org.

Learn more about the UC’s stormwater initiatives BASIN and FYI.

Update 5

Feb 2020

A growing number of locals are calling for a greener Mardi Gras, but weaning ourselves from cheap plastic won’t be easy.

Nathan Simpson looked at home amid the chaotic swirl of costumed revelers at the recent krewedelusion parade lineup, sporting a blue bodysuit and peering through glowing red lenses at the crowd. Tonight he was Recyclops, and he had a mission: to collect all the aluminum cans and plastic bottles he could get his hands on.

Simpson is one of about 20 members of the Trashformers, Mardi Gras’ first recycling-themed marching krewe. While recycling is the focus, the group, founded in 2019 by local architect Brett Davis, hopes to spark a broader conversation about Mardi Gras waste, including the plastic beads and throws now synonymous with the season.

The interactive recycling Krewe: The Trashformers! Photo by Matthew Hinton

Members dress in eco-pun costumes (Simpson’s Recyclops, inspired by Marvel X-Men superhero Cyclops, was joined by a Pacific Garbage Patch Kid and Oscar the Recycling Grouch), and deploy a fleet of lime-green shopping carts to collect cans and bottles directly from parade-goers.

Simpson, a New Orleans native, said he joined Trashformers to show that we can be responsible without killing the Mardi Gras fun. He grew up going to parades and loves Carnival krewes and balls, but the waste is a problem, he said.

It’s not about changing Mardi Gras, Simpson said, “it’s about changing the culture of how we experience Mardi Gras.”

Simpson isn’t alone. As New Orleans faces a host of ecological threats — climate change, sinking land and flooding to name a few — a growing number of locals are calling for an environmental reboot of the city’s Carnival experience, and a break from the throw-away culture and cheap plastic beads and trinkets ubiquitous at parades.

This year, several large krewes, including Rex and Bacchus, have publicized efforts to cut back on the amount of plastic members throw. Arc of Greater New Orleans, which sorts and re-sells beads, employing adults with disabilities in the process, reports donations more than tripled to 190 tons ahead of Mardi Gras 2020. Even the City Council weighed in, approving a new ordinance that bans riders from throwing the plastic bags that beads are packaged in.

Volunteers collect beads for recycling at ARCGNO as they trail the day parades on Sunday, February 23, 2020. (Photo by Michael DeMocker)

Is a greener, plastic-free Mardi Gras possible? Sustainability advocates are optimistic, though they acknowledge it will require a major cultural shift. The answer is more complicated for krewes and riders.

“It’s about changing the culture of how we experience Mardi Gras.”

Cheap plastic trinkets underpin the economics of the season, allowing krewes to attract riders and generate revenue. Wholesalers make millions of dollars on the roughly 25 million pounds of beads imported from China every year, and parade-goers have come to expect a deluge of loot on the route.

Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans are big and bountiful, and that generates a lot of money for the city and local businesses, said Dan Kelly, president of the Krewe of Endymion, whose 3,200 riders each toss 500 pounds of throws on average. Kelly also owns Beads by the Dozen, a wholesaler that imports roughly 5 million pounds of throws each year.

“If you make it too expensive for people to throw these greatest shows on Earth for free, New Orleans is going to dry up,” Kelly said. “It’s not going to be the city that we’re known for.”

At the same time, the cost of cleaning up after parades is rising and taxpayers are footing the bill. The City of New Orleans spent $1.5 million to collect 2.6 million pounds of trash during the two-week height of Mardi Gras season in 2018, according to city records. That was a 60% jump in spending from 2008.

That price doesn’t factor in the toll Chinese-made plastic throws take on our health and infrastructure, said Dana Eness, executive director of The Urban Conservancy. Researchers have found unsafe levels of lead and a range of other toxins in imported beads, which can remain in trees, yards and sewers well after parades. In 2018, city contractors pulled 93,000 pounds of beads from clogged catch basins along the St. Charles Avenue parade route. The headline shocked locals and got national attention.

“The reality is there’s a huge cost that New Orleanians bear, but tourists do not, in terms of wear and tear on the infrastructure, clogged drains, flooding. Things we’re paying for in all sorts of ways,” Eness said. Read the full article here.

 

Update 4

Dec 2019

Urban Conservancy Executive Director, Dana Eness, provides comment to The Advocate regarding roadway infrastructure in New Orleans and transition towards municipal water management:

Dana Eness on New Orleans Infrastructure Needs

  • New Orleans claims 1,450 square feet of road surface per person; the highest ratio of pavement per person in the country.
  • The majority of our transportation infrastructure was built in the 1960’s with population projections of 1 million residents. The city currently has less than 400,00 people. We are taxing ourselves to maintain an over-sized street system. 
  • Reducing the sizes of roadways provides space for municipal water management installations and multi-modal transportation opportunities.

Update 3

Nov 2016

Today, the City of New Orleans in partnership with StayLocal, released a Road Construction Toolkit for New Orleans Businesses. The toolkit features important contact information, practical tips and technical assistance so businesses can continue to thrive during road construction. At this time, the City is gearing up a $2.4 billion capital improvement program to repair and rebuild 400 miles of roads and subsurface infrastructure. Read the full press release here.

Update 2

Jul 2016

The UC gets a mention in this article about 2015 Urban Hero, Jay Nix.

Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

House Tour: Parkway Bakery owners’ waterfront home above Bayou Sauvage

Update 1

The Urban Conservancy’s Front Yard Initiative gets a great mention! Removing excessive paving decreases street flooding by capturing water where it falls and increasing onsite permeability.

Image by Dana Eness, Urban Conservancy

6 ways New Orleans residents can help fight street flooding

Important Links

 

Gentilly Resiliency District goes against flow of how New Orleans handles stormwater– An excellent summary of the Gentilly Resiliency District and what the $141 million HUD grant entails.