Understandably, changing a city’s entire mindset about water management is a tall order. For years, water in the Crescent City was viewed as a threat instead of an asset. To make matters worse, efforts to control the city’s water were loosely organized and piecemeal, with projects often appearing in duplicate plans created by multiple organizations. As various stakeholders began work on implementing aspects of the Urban Water Plan, it became clear that collaboration across all levels of the community was necessary to connect expertise and leverage limited resources.
To fill this need, a diverse coalition of individuals, businesses, non-profit organizations, and design-engineering firms gathered together to create the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans. This unique, multi-sector regional partnership seeks to facilitate the flow of information on emerging issues in water management, identify green infrastructure design and investment opportunities, and foster effective partnerships among participants at the ground level.
The Water Collaborative gives residents, businesses, non-profits, and engineering firms a chance to learn from each other about water management best practices and to give input on what tangible results they want to see in their own communities. Various activities to date include community training workshops, policy forums, a continuing education series for designers and builders, walk and learn tours, and advocacy for better stormwater laws. Helping members of the community learn about and become more comfortable with water management concepts broadens support for green infrastructure projects and related policies going forward.
One of the best examples of the Water Collaborative’s early success was the effort to have the City of New Orleans adopt Article 23 to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, which was one of the first instances of the city incorporating stormwater management performance standards for commercial properties. Before this change, commercial properties were free to let thousands of gallons of stormwater runoff flow toward the city’s street and sewer systems, which can cause flooding and pollute nearby water sources. Now all commercial properties greater than one acre in size are required to retain, detain, and filter stormwater runoff during each rain event. This is an important step toward reducing both small and large scale flooding events, as well as reducing negative environmental impacts.
In addition to advocacy and outreach, the Water Collaborative also serves as a valuable tool for peer learning. For design professionals, reaching out to and educating members of the community and each other about water management serves a purpose. By teaching stakeholders and other design professionals about these concepts, they make it easier to plug these concepts into future projects. This is particularly helpful to overcoming the inertia common to public works departments and utilities. Concerns about design approval, budgets and maintenance can deter agencies and their contractors from pursuing integrated water management with green infrastructure. A key function of the collaborative is to provide continuing education for planners and engineers so they become more comfortable designing projects with water management in mind.
Finally, the group has also taken to coordinating direct action to improve water management in neighborhoods. Just recently, the Water Collaborative received a grant from the Dutch government to help coordinate with 1%Club to develop a crowdsourcing platform devoted to community-led water management projects. Through this platform, which is expected to be rolled out this summer, community members will be able to connect, donate, and volunteer to help build green infrastructure, including rain gardens, rain barrels, and small bioswales. The City will also be able to use the platform to learn what the community members want in terms of water management features and the tools and technical assistance they need.
Groups like the Water Collaborative can serve as a model for other cities around the country dealing with water management and resiliency issues. By bringing together experts from different disciplines, and building a public understanding of water management, they have increased demand for smarter water management policies--so eventually we will all stop dealing with water and start living with it.
Jamelyn Austin Trucks served as President of the Steering Committee, 2015-2016 and is currently the Vice-President, 2016-2017 for the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans, and also chairs the Advocacy Working Group. Jamelyn recently shared the Collaborative’s story and its success at the 2017 Association of State Floodplain Managers Conference.