Green Stormwater Infrastructure Project Soaks Up Accolades

NEW ORLEANS – Since Katrina, New Orleans leaders have looked for innovative ways to relieve pressure on the city’s pumping systems during storms and other heavy rain events. Many are advocating for more “green stormwater infrastructure” that will allow the ground to soak up water that would otherwise be sent to catch basins. 

Unlike curbs, gutters and drains that move stormwater from a built environment into a nearby body of water, green infrastructure is designed to capture the rain water where it falls. Picture an impermeable parking lot, for instance, that’s been converted into one built with a permeable paving system on top of soil that has been conditioned to enhance its ability to take on water. If you’ve been to Parkway Bakery and Tavern near Bayou St. John, you can picture what it looks like.

A lot of people – from the federal government down to local contractors – have been getting involved in GSI projects. The Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Sewerage and Water Board and the City of New Orleans are collaborating on a campaign called “Every Drop Makes a Difference.” The Gentilly Resilience District, meanwhile, will use a $141 million federal grant to create water features, permeable sidewalks and other water-management infrastructure.

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One local nonprofit that’s focused on residential GSI projects is the Urban Conservancy, which just released a report on its Front Yard Initiative based on survey responses from 68 of the homeowners who have participated in the program. In five years, the initiative has raised approximately $100k from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Wisner Foundation and other benefactors and used the funds to pay a portion of the cost of residential GSI projects citywide. 

Urban Conservancy’s Dana Eness said the good news is that the study shows that “green stormwater infrastructure actually works,” and the functionality only increases over time as plants and their root systems have become fully established.

Among the survey’s findings: respondents said the severity of localized flooding was reduced by more than half, maintenance burdens and costs were low and participants had a better understanding of the importance of the green sector to the city’s resiliency.

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“People begin to understand what living with water means and that it’s important to move these projects forward,” said Eness. “Our infrastructure is old and can only do so much. We cannot expect to just pump ourselves out of water issues. We have to take a look at our own properties to see what we can do to keep water out of our streets, catch basins and pumping systems to the extent that we can.”

GSI, by the way, is not as simple as “get rid of the concrete,” Eness said. In south Louisiana, in particular, a lot of soil has high concentrations of clay and can be nearly as impermeable as cement.

“It’s not just about the concrete but it’s about what takes its place,” she said. “The more we understand about soil conditions – and they’re different in different parts of town – the better we understand flooding conditions. So you dig a hole where the water will go and then add something that will allow it to filter down. It could be gravel or sand or native plants that have these super-deep, complicated root systems that will help aerate the soil so it doesn’t get compacted again. It’s about creating spaces where water can sit a minute and then soak back into the ground. It’s different from regular landscaping.”

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Overall, the Front Yard Initiative has helped about 100 homeowners. On average, each received about $1,000 toward projects that cost $5,000 so the program administrators estimate the economic impact on the city to be $500,000. The goal has been to direct those dollars toward as many women- and minority-owned contracting businesses as possible. 

Eness said she hopes the city and other groups can get involved in funding more residential GSI initiatives and that this report moves things in that direction.

“This is the first survey in New Orleans of homeowner experiences with GSI and it’s really exciting to see,” she said. “We just didn’t have a snapshot to see how people are feeling about this work they spent money on and how their projects are holding up – and people are really happy. I hope we see broader data collection along these lines and more analysis.”

Eness said it will be beneficial overall if New Orleanians make GSI a higher priority.

“Most people’s houses need a paint job, new windows, all these issues,” she said. “Halfway down the average person’s list is GSI  – even if they hate walking through ankle deep water on rainy day, but they don’t do it because they have to paint first. One thing that will encourage people to prioritize it is if they’re getting financial support. Our program is an excellent example of that.”

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