N.O. to get help with stormwater planning

A team of experts in the areas of law, finance and engineering will soon come to the city to help officials plan a long-term vision for dealing with stormwater infrastructure.

New Orleans is one of eight cities that will benefit from the RE.invest Initiative. Other cities are Milwaukee; Honolulu; El Paso, Texas; Hoboken, N.J.; Miami Beach, Fla.; Norfolk, Va.; and San Francisco. Each participating city will receive about $3 million worth of services during two years.

About 50 cities across the country applied to be part of the RE.invest program, its founder, Shalini Vajjhala, said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters.

The initiative, financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, is a two-year program that will help cities design and finance stormwater infrastructure projects. The program is designed to allow cities to partner with experts who might otherwise be unavailable because of a lack of money or other limitations, but who can help make connections with public and private money that will see projects on the drawing board become reality.

New York-based Wall Street Without Walls will provide help with financial planning for the projects, while Akin Gump and Bechtel Corp. will lead the legal and engineering aspects of the projects, respectively.

During a recent workshop hosted by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, officials described improved stormwater management and drainage as the third line of defense, behind stronger levees and coastal restoration, for ensuring New Orleans’ safety from rising water during storms.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu said improving stormwater management is “essential” to New Orleans’ future.

While each city will work on a range of projects, the RE.invest Initiative focuses on green technology, said Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

New Orleans will use the program to help prioritize of a list of projects that are ready to move from design to construction; finalize designs of other projects; and develop best practices for stormwater management that respond to local soil and groundwater conditions, according to the city’s page on the RE.invest Initiative’s website. The city already has a pilot program in place to use porous instead of impervious concrete in the Lower 9th Ward, said Siona LaFrance, a City Hall spokeswoman. That allows for water to seep into the ground, rather than flow to storm drains and, ultimately, pumps.

The city’s application for RE.invest grew out of a long-range planning exercise, funded by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development and led by the firm Waggonner & Ball in partnership with Greater New Orleans inc. The study is aimed at coming up with ways to reduce the region’s reliance on pumping out stormwater while improving safety and limiting subsidence. Among the strategies that study has explored are retrofitting streets so they can retain more water; building “rain gardens” in vacant lots to absorb rainfall; creating water storage basins, such as one at Wally Pontiff Playground in Jefferson Parish.

The city’s participation in RE.invest comes as the Sewerage & Water Board contemplates a new customer fee that would pay for an estimated $356 million in drainage projects in coming years.

“We’re excited about the opportunities the RE.invest Initiative will provide for collaboration, coordination, and technical expertise to help move priority projects forward with private and philanthropic support,” Landrieu said.