Stormwater plan to use water, not eliminate it

Officials unveiled a $6.2 billion plan Friday that aims to change the way Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes manage the 5 feet of rainwater they get every year.

And while it’s still a long way from being realized, the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan marks a major philosophical shift: Rather than simply pump water out of the geological bowl as quickly as possible, its architects want to slow the process down, retaining some of the water to prevent the soil from sinking and damaging streets and buildings.

But the first order of business following an upbeat conference at the Port of New Orleans was best summed up by presenter and Dutch waterways expert Henk Ovink: “You need to change the facts on the ground and implement the damn thing,” he said to nods of agreement from a packed auditorium.

Where things will go from here is unclear. The plan, the result of a two-year, $2.5 million effort by a Dutch and U.S. team led by consultant David Waggonner, suggests state and federal grants, bonds, stormwater utility fees, special assessments and public/private partnerships as possible funding sources for executing the projects. But there is little money in hand to execute the vision.

It remains to be seen how the vision will be greeted by residents of the metro area. Among the seven demonstration projects in and around New Orleans proponents hope to build first are “blueways” and “floating streets” that may strike New Orleanians just hoping to see a few potholes fixed as a tad exotic.

But the plan has the endorsement of a raft of public officials, and Greater New Orleans Inc.’s Michael Hecht hopes to sell it by persuading people that it’s just sound business. He says the plan would deliver $22 billion in economic benefits over the next 50 years, including an $8 billion reduction in repetitive flooding costs, $609 million in reduced flood insurance premiums, $183 million in increased property values and $11.3 billion in economic development.

While the plan has a timeline that spans decades, Hecht is bullish even in the short term.

“I would like to make one substantive announcement about a project meeting a milestone or being completed every three or four months,” he said.

Part of the challenge in building support for the plan involves showing residents why it’s needed. Waggonner explained that the current approach of pumping water out as fast as possible dries out the land, causing subsidence, which creates potholed streets and damages buildings and infrastructure. It also plays a big part in making New Orleans a sinking city that is ever more vulnerable to hurricanes.

“If we do nothing to address our water challenges,” Hecht said, “by 2100 we will be an archipelago. This is our existential crisis as a community.”

But if the region embraces a strategy that slows the pumps down and uses the water in canals and retention ponds, it can prevent subsidence and its ill effects while creating water features that can attract residents and economic development.

“Everyone pays a premium to live on waterfront property,” said Jefferson Parish President John Young, who was joined by New Orleans Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant and St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta.

Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, also attended, and press materials included support from Mayor Mitch Landrieu and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Hecht and others said the cutting-edge nature of the envisioned projects could also make New Orleans an exporter of technologies and expertise that will be in high demand as other cities and countries battle similar problems. Right now, Hecht said, New Orleans-based companies have $400 million in contracts related to the recovery efforts around Hurricane Sandy.

Patrick Forbes, executive director of the disaster recovery unit at the Louisiana Office of Community Development, said that while the water plan does require a complete re-imagining of how stormwater is managed, the city is no stranger to taking bold steps to solve big problems.

“We’re used to doing that; this is just doing it better,” he said, noting the project “is the definition of safer, stronger, better.”

Hecht said there is already some initial movement on some of the demonstration projects already. The Congregation of St. Joseph is working to donate the property for a project envisioned in Gentilly’s Mirabeau Gardens.

Hecht said that in areas like Elmwood, where business owners have a financial interest in improving infrastructure to prevent flooding, the private sector might support a special taxing district.

Public/private partnerships are also an option. Hecht said a city could allow a company to put in telecommunications infrastructure if the company agreed to do drainage improvements at the same time, for example. New York City was able to get developers to build public amenities in exchange for letting them exceed height limits after 9/11, he said.

“There is a precedent for this that works,” he said.

And in Jefferson, Hecht said, making the open canals more attractive could garner public support.

“When you beautify the canals you change them from a nuisance to an amenity,” he said. “You take something that was destroying property values and flip it to something that increases ad valorem tax (collections).”

“Jefferson has the potential through these improvements to become the parish of linear parks,” he said.

Waggonner said simply rebuilding roads more intelligently will help. “Everywhere there’s a highway, there is a water storage opportunity,” he said.