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New Orleans Delegation Looks At The Limits Of Austin's Water Management System

Jesse Hardman

Last week a delegation from the Crescent City traveled to Austin, Texas. The idea: to check out how Austin manages its water. Drought-stricken Texas has too little water; New Orleans often has too much. But they have a surprising amount to learn from each other.

Outside their city government office building, five employees of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department show off a series of small rain gardens they’ve built. The plots sit along the curb of a major intersection. They’re meant to absorb as much storm-water as possible, to help prevent overflow and flooding to the city’s drainage system.

There is a big storm predicted for the evening, which is an exciting event in a town that sees long stretches of drought. To prepare, city water monitor AboliMoezzi is placing a series of glass tubes in a metal box next to the rain garden. He wants to collect rain samples so he can measure pollution in the storm-water. Moezzi says sometimes he gets so excited to see the results of his data that he stops by one of his 50 water collection sites in the middle of the night.

"You gotta try it sometime, 3 o'clock in the morning, it's beautiful."

Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO
Members of a New Orleans civic delegation take a look at a storm water retention pond behind an Austin Walmart.

A delegation of 10 New Orleans city officials and local non-profit and foundation leaders look on as Moezzi gets ready for his big night. Austin is a leader of water management innovation, and the New Orleans crew is here to learn.

Presentations by Austin staff, like Joe Pantalion, include the origin story of how the city started to manage water better. “What really led to today’s modern Watershed Protection Department was the memorial flood of 1981," he says. "This was a flood that caused 13 deaths, and over $36 million worth of damage.”

After that flood, Austin’s city council adopted a drainage fee for residents. That money enabled the city to start paying for new strategies in water management.

The drainage fee is a little over $9 now, and accounts for the Watershed Protection Department’s $70 million budget and a staff of 270 people. New Orleans’ Sewerage and Water Board, which handles similar tasks, has around five employees focused on storm-water.

New Orleans City Councilmember Susan Guidry says her city is definitely playing catch-up. “I would say we're probably 20 years behind Austin in terms of the public and the local government understanding and really getting what it is we need to do to manage storm-water, and at the same time helps our environment.”

Mike Personnet is the assistant director for Austin’s Watershed Protection Department. He says one of the ways that Austin has been able to be so progressive is because the mandate has come from the citizens. They vote in favor of things like buying vacant land to help manage water. “We have a very, very green city. We have a lot of support from the public,” he says.

Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO
A rain garden fashioned inside a city sidewalk in Austin, Texas.

Austin’s success in being green has no doubt led to its influx in population, which has doubled in recent years. Part of the city’s population strategy is focused on density, building up high-rises, instead of out, which would require extending water systems.

“It's all part and parcel of quality of life, livability. But at the same time, to the extent that we put nature back into the city, we can create benefits. For example: storm-water infiltration.”

As part of the visit, the New Orleans team was taken on a water management bus tour of Austin. One of the stops is a Walmart parking lot. The city worked with the big box store on installing a kind of porous pavement that absorbs some storm-water into the soil beneath it.

The tour bus also stopped at a creek, where the city is experimenting with letting certain native vegetation grow higher and wilder than usual. The idea is that it’ll help absorb excess water when the creeks swell from storms, preventing flooding.

Mateo Scoggins is an environmental scientist with the Watershed Protection Department. He says this experiment has required a lot of community outreach.

“There's a vanity to what they think of as beauty, and what's acceptable to them culturally," Scoggins says. "We always have to temper that with the fact that our funding and our job is to protect the water resource.”

Not all of the examples from the Austin trip are good fits for New Orleans’ unique geography. There’s also the question of funding — New Orleans is tied up financially with consent decrees and outstanding bills for infrastructure projects.

But the ideas resonate, overall — that with community support, and scalable projects, positive things can happen. City Councilmember Latoya Cantrell was excited by what she saw. “Austin is very progressive, and they understand the environment in which they live, and they are taking precautions and being proactive.”

Cantrell said she was also excited to take what she learned and hurry home. She wants to share some things with her next-door neighbor. “Look man, that's why I didn't want you to pave that back yard, because now my yard is flooding due to rain. So now I'm trying to find techniques on how I can alleviate the collection of rainwater in my backyard!“

Cantrell says thanks to the Austin trip, she’s got some ideas on how to use a blighted property behind her house to develop a water management solution. 

Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO
A new housing development in Austin, Texas prioritizes water conservation and management.

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Kabacoff Family Foundation.  

As the new Coastal Reporter, Jesse Hardman will draw on 15 years of worldwide experience in radio, video and print journalism. As a radio reporter he has reported for NPR, BBC, and CBC, and for such familiar programs as Marketplace, This American Life, Latino USA, and Living on Earth. He served as a daily news reporter and news magazine producer for WBEZ in Chicago.