Your Next Entrepreneurial Opportunity Could Be All Wet

Businesses in our water sector can’t keep up with demand.

Illustration by Tony Healey

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


In 2015, this column ran with a headline of “Water, Water Everywhere ­— and Opportunity in Every Drop.” In the New Orleans region today, the water sector opportunities are greater than ever.

I first got involved with water management as a member of the advisory board for the Greater New Orleans Urban Stormwater Plan. While working on the plan, I traveled to the Netherlands in 2012 to observe firsthand the innovative approaches our Dutch colleagues were telling us about.

One of my biggest takeaways from that trip was that I had never seen a problem with so much opportunity embedded in its solutions. That view is nourished and expanded today by Jessica Dandridge, executive director of the Water Collaborative.

“If you have that entrepreneurial spirit, look into the water sector,” Dandridge said. “There are not enough businesses in the sector right now. Small businesses can’t keep up with the work.”

According to Dandridge, some water management and green infrastructure firms are booked a full year out.

Growth in this sector begins with the recent expansion of workforce training programs relating to green infrastructure. This includes not just installation but maintenance, as many water management installations require ongoing upkeep. Delgado Community College, the Louisiana Green Corps and Groundworks are just three of the entities providing such training.

Dandridge said that someone looking to seize a water sector business opportunity who is lacking knowledge in the field could complete one of the training programs and come out with enough expertise to launch a startup business.

Opportunities within the sector cover a broad range of possibilities, including landscaping (installation and maintenance of rain gardens, etc.), construction (permeable paving, green walls and roofs), architecture, urban planning and civil engineering, among others.

The work ranges from large, governmental projects to private sector jobs large and small, to homeowners looking to put in rain barrels, small water gardens, and/or remove and replace concrete with permeable paving. Mandates for increased use of water management practices are increasing; city zoning and building codes have numerous such requirements, and Gov. Edwards recently released a “net zero carbon emissions” proclamation for the state.

At the individual property level, Dandridge noted that “green infrastructure increases property values. It prevents properties from flooding, which helps drive down insurance costs.” As such, the demand for water management is increasing among homeowners.

According to Dandridge, the more established businesses in the sector are increasingly focused on the larger government contracts, leaving plenty of room for newer and smaller businesses. While she acknowledged that the field is presently struggling with a bit of a “turf war” mentality as part of its growing pains, her take is that growth will lead to more resiliency for the city and more opportunity for the sector, regionally and even nationally.

Indeed, an underlying premise of the Urban Stormwater Plan is the notion that New Orleans can become “America’s Water City.” There is no small irony in the fact that a century ago, the Dutch came here to learn about water management, while today we look to their latest innovations. Entrepreneurial incubators like Propeller recognize this opportunity and host challenges each year for new ideas, inventions and tactics in water management. In essence, New Orleans is the perfect laboratory for experimenting with green infrastructure innovations, and each new approach — and new business — helps build the overall sector. In turn, more businesses providing water management services will benefit the community as a whole.

“If we have more people in the market doing this work it can be done at a more affordable rate,” said Dandridge. “Green infrastructure then becomes affordable for more businesses and homeowners, which creates more overall benefits.”

With wide open opportunities and a clear entry path, the water sector truly (and still) does offer opportunity in every drop.