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Innovative Thinking On the Elements

By Ian McNulty
March 2013

The potential and perils of water have directed life in New Orleans from the city’s start. But now some of the city’s innovators are working to shape a new relationship with water, one aimed at better managing the flood threat and creating new economic opportunities along the way.

“Adaptation is really our only choice. If we don’t accept change now, we’re really going to be responsible for letting the city go,” says David Waggonner, a local architect and team leader for the Greater New Orleans Water Management Strategy.

Waggonner spoke recently at a briefing convened by the Bureau of Governmental Research on the future of stormwater management in the city. Since Hurricane Katrina, he’s been a leading advocate for solutions similar to those used in the famously flood-prone Netherlands.

A central take-away from this Dutch model, he says, is to store water in the city’s landscape longer using better drainage and dispersal methods, including more canals and ponds. If properly engineered, he argues, these water features can become community amenities. Bayou St. John is one local example of this approach, and New Orleans East was developed with more water storage capacity as well.

“We don’t need to drain every drop of water that falls. Some of it can be stored and at the same time increase quality of life,” Waggoner says.

By contrast, however, the flood-control strategy for much of the city relies on underground piping and unsightly walled canals to pump water out as quickly as possible, which contributes to the city’s subsidence issues and persistent damage to roads and building foundations.

“The challenge is to manage the water for very different conditions, from drought to flood,” Waggoner says. “The lesson of the Dutch is that you can’t manage water individually, you have to manage it collectively. If we don’t learn how to manage water, we don’t have a home.”

Others are bringing new ideas to the issue as well. This month, the Greater New Orleans Foundation and The Idea Village hold their third annual Water Challenge, a business competition for solutions for living with water – from coastal restoration to stormwater management. The idea is to deploy the competitive energy of entrepreneurs to answer an environmental need while also creating new companies and jobs.

For Water Challenge details, see For more on Waggoner’s research, see

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