New Orleans Must Work With Water, Not Against It

By Jett Trudeau

Local and federal government must address the issue together. 

Local and federal government must address the issue together. The greatest environmental challenges facing New Orleans are subsidence, rising sea levels, and an eroding coast. These issues threaten the very existence of the city, in turn imperiling the civil liberties and constitutional freedoms of the citizens of New Orleans. The federal government’s approach to this issue will set precedent for other American coastal cities in the future. If the federal government appropriates enough resources and handles the situation correctly, there will be an exceptional precedent set. Taking action is paramount in the face of rising sea levels.

Technological revolutions of the late 1930s brought a unique invention to New Orleans: The Central Pumping System. The pumps allowed the City of New Orleans to pump water out of the back swamp (from Claiborne encompassing Mid-City towards the North Shore). A newly dried section of New Orleans was ripe for development in the early 1940s. Water was pumped, and houses were built. Mid-city was constructed, lakeside was developed, and New Orleans boomed. However, the actions taken against water would later come back to devastate the city in ways that were unforeseen at the time.

The primary cause behind coastal erosion is levee construction around the Mississippi, which has blocked sediment from being redistributed across the delta. The second largest driving factor is the channel dredging that has been taking place since 1915, after the discovery of major oil reserves in coastal Louisiana. New Orleans faces threats from multiple fronts, but there are solutions to these problems.

The federal and local governments must work together to fund and implement two proposed projects: the Urban Water Plan and the 2017 Coastal Master Plan. Funding must be appropriated by Congress and implementation must be a cooperative effort between local officials and federal officials. Funding the Urban Water Plan (an estimated 13.4 Billion USD) would allow the City of New Orleans to be redesigned from a new perspective. David Waggoner, a designer of the Urban Water Plan, says that the city must "work with water, as opposed to working against it."

The plan "will be the greatest weapon New Orleans has against subsidence." It will redesign the sections of New Orleans that need recharged groundwater the most (Mid-city, Gentilly, New Orleans East primarily) and will feature rain gardens, retention ponds on neutral grounds, permeable pavement, and a host of other urban designs that will pump water back into the back swamp, as opposed to continually pumping it out.

“Work with water, as opposed to working against it."

The second important project is the 2017 Coastal Master Plan. Due to its scope and cost the program must be primarily funded and implemented by the federal government. Funding the Master Plan will take an estimated 100 Billion USD.

Fred Sorenson of the International Plant Protection Convention estimates that New Orleans will be flooded from a "water surge overload" from Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne, and other outlets that connect to the Gulf by 2056 if no action is taken to rebuild the coast. If these outlets overflow, the city will not be able to pump its way out of the resulting disastrous flood. The Master Plan involves moving 100 million pounds of sediment and sand marsh to the coast in order to rebuild barrier islands. It is well worth the money for the precedent it will set as well as the lives it will save.

Both the Louisiana Master Plan and Urban Water Plan must be enacted, and there must be cooperation between local and federal government if we are to keep New Orleans above water.