Water, Water, But Not Everywhere
The complex nature of southeast Louisiana’s relationship with water was again brought to the fore by Hurricane Ida. We would not be here without water; sometimes it seems like we won’t be here because of water.
That relationship only gets more complicated in the urban core of the region. While New Orleans and Jefferson Parish were largely spared the horrors of severe flooding, rain damage was common. Jefferson was without water service for several days. Boil water advisories were posted for multiple locations.
Navigating the myriad water issues, finding comprehensive solutions and maximizing the many opportunities associated with water management is the role of The Water Collaborative. According to the Collaborative’s Executive Director, Jessica Dandridge, doing this successfully starts with education.
“There is so much information about why we flood and who is responsible for flooding, it’s hard for people to sort through all that,” Dandridge observed. “Most people do not know how it works between levees, pumps, catch basins, and green infrastructure.”
Adding to the inherent challenges of living in a coastal delta are two major external factors, the pandemic being the most immediate.
“After COVID started, the first thing we did was help pass the water shut-off moratorium,” recalled Dandridge. Water access is something that most people take for granted, but in reality, obtaining this essential of life is not guaranteed for many people. High water bills are a major problem for many area residents. Water quality – as evidenced by the recent boil orders – is frequently just as challenging.
“We need better water testing and pollution enforcement,” Dandridge stated. “Water shut-offs should be a last resort. We are also working to keep the water systems public instead of private.”
Overarching all of this is the threat from climate change, which Dandridge described as “a pressure-cooker kind of situation.” The New Orleans metro area is considered the third-most vulnerable in the United States, after Miami and Norfolk, Virginia. Dandridge is co-chairing the Region 8 Louisiana Watershed Initiative, which according to Dandridge focuses on “coastal resilience, climate weatherization, and grey and green infrastructure. The goal is to protect communities from flooding and other hazards. Louisiana is the first southern state to do watershed planning.”
The Water Collaborative’s efforts in advocacy, legislative action and education will all be coming together soon as the long-discussed New Orleans Stormwater Fee is finally brought to the public, likely next year. The Collaborative is working closely with the New Orleans Business Alliance and the Business Council to prepare the legislation.
“The purpose is to create an equitable fee system to make New Orleans more climate and water resistant,” explained Dandridge. “This will replace the current millage for the Sewerage and Water Board, and will get the large landholders to start paying into the system.”
This is a critical point, because current laws exempt huge property owners like universities and hospitals from property taxes; yet their land holdings run extensive amounts of rainwater into the drainage system. A drainage fee works more like a regular user fee, with property owners assessed based on the amount of water they send into the system.
This also incentivizes landowners large and small to reduce rainwater runoff. “Everyone can be part of the solution,” said Dandridge. “Plant a tree or a bioswale, put in a rain barrel or a raingarden.”
While small individual steps such as these may seem like the proverbial drop in the bucket, their cumulative effect can have huge impacts in terms of holding water during major rain events and preventing the drainage pumps from being overwhelmed. Dandridge and other experts in the field also note that having a few people in a neighborhood take these initial steps frequently has a ripple effect.
“Contractors find that when an individual does a green installation at their house, it often inspires neighbors to do the same thing,” she reported. “You can start a movement!”
More information about water management can be found at nolawater.org. In addition, Sewerage and Water Board meetings, and City Council oversight meetings, are televised and streamed.