The Big Easy has a multibillion-dollar new philosophy for dealing with flooding: Let it happen. (At least in some spots.)
New Orleans is a low-lying city built on swampland, and its leaders are finally coming to terms with that hydrological reality. No longer will officials try to drain and pump out every drop of excess water that falls or flows their way.
Instead, under the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, floodwaters would be corralled into areas that serve as parks during drier times. Rain gardens and bioswales would help the earth suck up more of the rain that falls on it. And water would be funneled into year-round canals and ponds that support wildlife, improve soil quality, and generally pretty up the place.
The plan, which was developed in consultation with Dutch engineers, wouldn’t shelter the city from catastrophic floods if its levees fail — as happened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But it would help turn the region’s heavy rainfall from a hazard into an asset. That’s becoming especially important, with Louisiana enduring America’s fastest rates of sea-level rise and experiencing increasingly intense downpours as the globe warms up.
“We know how to do this. We just forgot,” Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant said at a ceremony as the plan was unveiled on Friday. “We had to be reminded by our friends from the Netherlands.”
The $6.2 billion plan aims to solve two pressing problems. It would help reduce flood damage in a naturally soggy city during a period of climate upheaval. And it would help recharge desiccated soils with moisture, preventing the ground from sinking ever further beneath sea level. From the vision outlined in the plan:
Greater New Orleans has always contended with flooding from rainfall, and now faces new challenges, including changing climate, rising seas, and human-induced sinking of the land.
Last century’s infrastructure enabled widespread urbanization in a wet delta environment, but the principles underlying that infrastructure are no longer adequate to sustain the region.
A new approach to water — the region’s most abundant asset — is the foundation for building a safe, prosperous and beautiful future on the Mississippi River Delta.
Of course, overhauling century-old city infrastructure won’t be easy, and it’s not clear how the needed billions of dollars would be raised. From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
The sheer ambition of the plan lays bare the difficulty of any swift implementation. For that reason, its chief architect, architect and planner David Waggonner, said it looks long-term, to 2050, for a completion date.
While the numbers are hard to prove, … supporters said they believed the new plan could provide an $11.3 billion economic benefit to the region in terms of rising property values and reduced risk of flooding.
Regardless of how long this takes, it’s sure nice to see N’awlins becoming friends again with the bountiful water that once defined it.