By Nancy Stoner
New Orleans is defined by its location along the Mississippi River and near the Gulf of Mexico. It is working hard to define its water future — a future in which the city is less vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise and is able to retain or restore many of the coastal wetlands that have been lost over the years because people have altered the hydrology.
The Urban Waters Ambassador, Danny Wiegand, funded by the Office of Water and on detail from the Army Corps of Engineers, is the perfect guy to take on this assignment. He’s working closely with the Mayor’s office, other agencies such as HUD and FEMA, and most importantly, the citizens of New Orleans and grassroots groups such as Groundwork New Orleans.
I visited New Orleans on a sweltering day in July to get a look at how the Urban Waters Federal Partnership was operating there. Danny took me to the Lower 9th Ward, which was notoriously wiped out by Hurricane Katrina nine years ago. Private efforts at rebuilding have supplied many locals with attractive, energy efficient homes.
But vacant lots still abound and present an opportunity: rain gardens, parks, community gardens, and other neighborhood amenities can reduce the amount of stormwater pumped out of town. The rain gardens are both built and maintained by high school and college students who explained their hydrology and function in the landscape to me — while standing in the baking heat next to display boards. It was great to see this community empower their young people to make their vision for a sustainable New Orleans not just a dream, but a real possibility for the lowlands that they love.
In addition, the EPA Urban Waters Program recently awarded $2.1 million in grants to support urban waterways. I am pleased to learn that the Lake Pontchartrain Area in New Orleans is one of the 2014 grant locations with six organizations receiving funding assistance. These grants will continue to empower the sustainable growth that I saw on my recent trip to New Orleans