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Philadelphia Gets Its Water Management Act Together, And New Orleans Takes Notes

Laine Kaplan-Levenson

In September, a delegation of local officials traveled to Austin to learn how they manage their water. New Orleans is preparing to adopt a new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance which, if passed, will include the city’s first ever stormwater management plan.

Earlier this month, members of that same delegation visited Philadelphia for another take on urban water management and green infrastructure.

One one of the first stops of the trip, the group found four young men are breakdancing in front of 60 or so people as part of the ribbon cutting for a new performing arts center and park. The Manayunk neighborhood in Philadelphia has been waiting a long time for this day.

While the neighborhood is fixated on the new park, water commissioner Howard Neukrug is celebrating what’s underneath Manyunk’s park: a $4 million sewage tank. "The idea that you are sitting over a sewage tank that is 400 feet wide, 75 feet long and 25 feet deep" Neukrug describes, "and yet you’re sitting in one of the most beautiful spots in Philadelphia..."

Credit Manayunk.com
Aerial photograph of the hole dug to house the sewage tank on Venice Island.

The city had to put in a sewage tank, and they could have stopped there. But Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis says Philadelphia’s new approach is to give local communities what they want and what they need. "And then you tie it into youth development, recreational programs, and community revitalization."

Credit Philadelphia Water Department
Rendering of completed Venice Island project

Like New Orleans, most of Philadelphia has a combined sewerage system, which collects both sewage and stormwater. During a hard rain, the runoff overwhelms the sewers, and untreated waste overflows into the surrounding rivers.

Philadelphia has been under a federal consent decree to stop that.

"Nature's always gonna win, we’re always gonna lose" Water Commissioner Howard Neukrug said to the New Orleans delegation. "So how do we connect the sustainability with our city and the sustainability of our utility?"

Philadelphia not only met the consent degree, it took the lead in stormwater management. The"Green City, Clean Waters"plan laid out a new strategy, with $2 billion for green roofs, rain gardens and the like.

Philly is not a rich city. To pay for this, the city had to get creative. Enter a new stormwater fee. Now, the more water that leaves your property and goes into the city’s sewer system, the more you pay.

Sarah Wu works for the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, and says you can be strategic about avoiding a high bill. "Installing a green roof is one of the ways that private property owners can reduce their stormwater liability."

These stormwater fees pay for most of the green infrastructure departments and initiatives around the city.

Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson / WWNO
Philadelphia added signage to its sewers as a reminder that they are not trash cans.

Dale Thayer is an environmental planner for the City of New Orleans. He’s part of the New Orleans delegation visiting Philadelphia, and says his city is about seven years behind what he’s seeing in Philly.

"I think we’re still on square one, but we’re moving in that direction and you gotta start some place," he says.

Thayer is involved in the stormwater management plan that is part of the new comprehensive zoning ordinance. That plan is proposing to require new private developments to include green infrastructure. But there is no stormwater fee on the table.

That is a problem he says, especially if New Orleans wants to fund and enforce green development in the city.

"If the city wants to be in this game, we have to throw resources at it. Different cities have sixty, seventy, hundreds of people working in their departments and we’re pulling teeth to get four people. It’s ridiculous."

If New Orleans is at the beginning of the green infrastructure road, Sarah Wu says the best place to start is educating and getting buy-in from communities. "We’re trying to get everyone involved in this work to get them to understand its about quality of life, its not about hugging a tree."

New Orleans’s new CZO is currently undergoing public comment. Dale Thayer says he just hopes it passes, and the real work can begin. 

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