Workshops to give New Orleans solutions for water woes

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A pedestrian dodges rain Friday on Tulane Avenue. Water issues, including dealing with storm water, will be the focus of a series of workshops on turning water challenges into assets. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A pedestrian dodges rain Friday on Tulane Avenue. Water issues, including dealing with storm water, will be the focus of a series of workshops on turning water challenges into assets.

Every U.S. city faces some kind of water issue, from increasingly frequent flooding to looming freshwater shortages, but New Orleans is in a class by itself: shaped like a bowl, located below sea level beside an eroding coast and sitting atop a global list of sinking cities.

Beginning Wednesday, community leaders will take an in-depth look at how other cities across the nation have been able to turn water challenges into assets in a series of summer workshops.

New Orleans’ situation is significant and unique, acknowledged Marco Cocito-Monoc, director of regional initiatives at the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the organization hosting the five-part series in partnership with the Urban Institute and more than 30 community organizations.

Along with launching a citywide conversation with the “Urban Water Series” workshops, Cocito-Monoc said a primary goal is to build relationships between city leaders in New Orleans and authorities from other states.

After three of the workshops, dinners will be held to foster links in an informal setting.

Joined by local experts, leaders will come from Portland, Ore.; Houston; Milwaukee; Philadelphia; and Washington, D.C., to share solutions and lessons learned in the process.

While the Dutch are considered global experts, Cocito-Monoc said other U.S. cities have valuable ideas about how to better manage water in ways that are affordable given different political and budget constraints.

Water management is not just the responsibility of city entities, he said. “It’s the responsibility of everyone living in a city shaped like a bowl and located below sea level.”

Cocito-Monoc said subsidence is the worst problem, and New Orleans isn’t the only sinking city. Shanghai and Venice can claim that status, too, along with Long Beach, Calif., and numerous others. But the consequences for New Orleans are especially dire if not decelerated.

“Subsidence has an impact on virtually everything in the city,” Cocito-Monoc said. “Every millimeter matters.”

Losing elevation as the sea level rises is perilous enough, but subsidence also effects the structural integrity of levees, he pointed out.

As the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board prepares to raise rates to make major repairs and improvements to its infrastructure, Cocito-Monoc said that taking measures to prevent subsidence will protect that public investment into the future.

The way that storm water is currently handled — pumping it out as quickly as possible into surrounding bodies of water — is problematic, he said.

For one, the pumping capacity often cannot keep up and streets flood regularly. That approach also contributes to subsidence because the water is not allowed to absorb into the soil and strengthen it, Cocito-Monoc said.

The workshops also will examine the green benefits of conserving resources and reducing pollution related to water management.

For example, allowing plants and soil to absorb more water provides a natural filter for the runoff and prevents contaminants from entering Lake Pontchartrain.

Economically, property values can be boosted by creating aesthetic spaces for the water to go, he said, citing the desirability of living on Bayou St. John.

Cocito-Monoc said new bayous do not have to be created in that there are existing or historic waterways, such as along the Lafitte Corridor, that can be transformed

By taking advantage of the existing entrepreneurial momentum in the city in an effort to find the most innovative and economic solutions to the city’s significant challenges, New Orleans can become a leading expert for the nation and the world, Cocito-Monoc said.

The first workshop will be from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the New Orleans BioInnovation Center.

The next workshops, all of which are free and open to the public, will take place on June 5, June 19, June 26 and July 10.

Space is limited, but the workshops will be videotaped and will air online.

To register, to view the workshops online, or for more information, go to http://www.gnof.org.