New Orleans Launches Urban Water Plan To Stop City From Sinking
Potholed streets, buckled sidewalks and off-balance old buildings are often the first impression for visitors to New Orleans, along with live oaks that lean over so far they look like they could topple over in the next gust of wind.
This city is slowly sinking.
It’s a daily reality in New Orleans, where the soil is compacting and compressing, taking this old French settlement down ever so slightly more. This is, after all, a city built atop former peat bogs, swampland and forest long ago pumped dry.
But on Tuesday, Mayor Mitch Landrieu unveiled an experimental urban water plan to welcome water into the city’s soil to offset all the sinking – and at the same make New Orleans greener and safer.
“For our city, being resilient means more than levees holding back water and wetlands protecting us from storms,” Landrieu said. “It means striking a balance between human needs and the environment that surrounds us.”
FEMA head Craig Fugate and NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan were on hand to applaud the city’s new “resiliency plan,” a concept backed by the Rockefeller Foundation. The foundation has guaranteed the city $1 million to get its vision off the ground.
The announcement kicked off the city’s weeklong schedule of forums, events and commemorations just ahead of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane killed more than 1,830 people in the nation’s costliest disaster.
“After the last decade of Katrina, Rita, Ike, Gustav, Isaac, the BP oil spill, and the Great Recession, it is safe to say that New Orleans has faced the biggest challenges any American city has ever faced,” Landrieu said. “But New Orleans is a resilient place with resilient people.”
Besides water, the city’s resiliency plan also focuses on micro-financing as a means to lift up poor communities and individuals and modernizing the city’s transportation.
Yet, it was the “water plan” that got top billing on Tuesday – the vision of New Orleans resembling Amsterdam, a city where water glistens everywhere.
It opens with a prescient 1819 quote by the great American architect Benjamin Latrobe, who observed that New Orleans is “a floating city, floating below the surface of the water.”
“We’re the only delta city that has tried to dry ourselves out,” said David Waggoner, a New Orleans urban planner and architect. He has overseen some of the bigger rebuilding projects in the metro region since Katrina.
He said the city’s reliance on a vast pumping system since 1895 has been the problem. Instead of pumping, Waggoner suggested, let the water stay.
Waggoner is collaborating with experts from Deltares, a Dutch water institute. A 2013 water plan that Waggoner’s firm developed envisions reconnecting bayous inside the city limits, creating large ponding areas and raising the water table.
Since the 1920s, New Orleans has pursued a strategy to pump out every inch of rain that falls inside the city’s levees. This approach helped New Orleans expand, and boom, well into the 1980s.
The city, though, is now struggling to keep this vast internal drainage system of canals and pumps going. Considered one of world’s engineering marvels, the aging and costly drainage system is run by the Sewerage and Water Board, a separate branch of city government. When it comes to flooding, this is the first line of defense in a subtropical city that is repeatedly flooding.
“Everybody has to help retain, store, rainwater,” said R.J. Stuurman, a hydrogeologist and delta risks adviser with Deltares.
He’s explored holes in New Orleans where crews go down 12 feet deep and can’t find the water table. To him, that’s a profoundly troubling discovery. In Amsterdam, for comparison, crews would hit the water table within a few feet, he said. “The problem is in the shallow ground,” he said. “There’s no water.”
Hence, the sinking. There are places that have dropped by more than 8 feet in the past half century – a trend the planners now hope to stop.