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New Orleans needs new approach to water management

By Richard Rainey
The Times-Picayune

As fog blanketed New Orleans and rain threatened the day outside, the burning question in a Ritz Carlton hotel conference room Thursday morning was an old, persistent one: how to live in a 295-year-old, slowly-sinking city fully surrounded – and often inundated – by water.

Dozens of public officials, engineers, advocates and residents gathered to listen to architect David Waggonner and Joseph Becker, general superintendent of the Sewerage & Water Board, push for a new approach to New Orleans’ water problem, one that shifts from expeditiously pushing excess water out of the city to learning how to store it. Dubbed the “Dutch model” after the Netherlands’ intricate network of dikes and canals that lets water flow through that country’s communities, it’s a pitch they have made during much of the post-Hurricane Katrina recovery period.

“By finding a way to live with water, we’re moving forward,” Becker said.

Becker described New Orleans a city with an apparently acute case of hydrophobia. New Orleans has 119 pumps at 24 pump stations that push water into Lake Pontchartrain at a rate equal to the flow of the Ohio River, he said. Fifteen miles of thick, imposing concrete floodwalls cut canals and waterways off from neighborhoods and hide them from residents. Major projects, some financed with federal dollars, are expanding the drainage system’s capacity to funnel even greater volumes at faster rates out of populated areas.

This is an antiquated approach to water management, Becker and Waggonner argued. It lowers the water table, dries out the soil and causes the city to sink further into the swamp. Such subsidence cracks roads; upsets foundations.

And it teaches residents to have a not-in-my-backyard attitude toward water.

As evidence that a new approach can work, they pointed to the expansion of neighborhoods in eastern New Orleans. Rather than relying entirely on canals and pump stations, several neighborhoods there are built around nine man-made lakes that store water during major rain events. That arrangement gives the drainage system more time to move water, reducing stress on the infrastructure. Pump stations in eastern New Orleans can drain 19,000 acres by pumping only 6,000 cubic feet of water per second. That’s a major improvement compared to Algiers’ pumping system, which can barely drain 11,300 acres with a capacity of 6,300 cubic feet of water per second.

And Waggonner said the lakes have an ancillary benefit: people want to live near water, and more people can lead to a more robust local economy. As it stands now, post-Katrina New Orleans doesn’t have the population that can pay to maintain the city’s infrastructure. It was built to hold half a million residents, not the 345,000 or so who live here now.

“We need to attract more people,” Waggonner said.

He used examples from Rotterdam, Amsterdam and other Dutch cities to show how urban and suburban landscapes can incorporate water, making them attractive places to live.

The Bureau of Governmental Research, a watchdog group that had birddogged the Sewerage & Water Board to improve its way of doing business, sponsored Thursday’s presentation. Waggonner’s firm, Waggonner & Ball, was recruited in March 2011 by the economic development group Greater New Orleans Inc. to lead the design of new way to handle water on the east banks of Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes.

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