Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Can't reinflate the water balloon

20 years ago in Baton Rouge, a college roommate of mine came back from a geology class barely able to restrain his glee. 

"New Orleans is sinking!" he beamed.  "Y'all gonna have to move out of that shithole."

My roommate was a proud small town Cajun boy from Iota.  I don't think he actually disliked the city as much as he just enjoyed talking shit about it to me whenever he could. Anyway, today he was excited to have some new ammunition.

Having been raised in the sinking shithole, I was already aware of its peculiar and precarious geographic situation. The city was shaped like a bowl. Its land dipped below sea level. Its borders were ringed by levees and walls to keep out the water from the surrounding lakes and marshes. The lakes and marshes were, in turn, being eaten by the sea beyond them. Meanwhile the drained swamp inside the bowl was settling lower and lower each year. The problem was only going to get worse over time.

We knew all of this.  We learned about it in elementary school.  I remember a public awareness stunt that would happen at the beginning of hurricane season where some group went around town with a giant ruler that was supposed to represent the height of a storm surge in the worst case scenario.  It looked bad. But, ironically, the constant little reminders also made it seem sort of routine. The result of this public information campaign was not action so much as acceptance. Of course the city is sinking, we all thought.  Didn't you learn that in sixth grade? Geeze. Besides, I told my friend, in the meantime living there was a (sinking) ride worth taking.

You might think the experience of the Katrina flood would alter that attitude a bit.  But I'm not sure that it has.  Instead, what's happened in the 10 years since is, rather than take the actions necessary to make the city viable in the long term, we've once again simply accepted the reality of its vulnerability.  Katrina's floodline is our new giant ruler. We all know the city is doomed. Didn't you see what happened in 2005? Geeze.

It's important to keep this in mind when you read in the newspaper, perhaps for the first time this week, what many of us old timers have known for decades.  New Orleans's world class drainage system is a curse as much as it is a blessing.

Originally, the water table under New Orleans stayed high thanks to an almost annual soaking from Mississippi River floods. But when levees were raised to protect the city from those floods, the water table started dropping and the soils began to drain, dry and sink. That problem was magnified when development spread blankets of concrete and asphalt across the landscape, reducing the ability of rainfall to recharge the water table.

New Orleanians live in a city that gets an average of 60 inches of rain a year, yet they know the area’s rare droughts can cause expensive problems as well: sink holes develop in streets, houses begin to list like leaking ships, cracks spider across walls, and doors start sticking in their jambs as homes begin to move with the ground beneath them.

But for a population living in a bowl, fear of flooding from frequent torrential rains was always the greater concern, and higher priority. The result is a vast storm-water drainage system featuring some 1,300 miles of subsurface pipes leading water to a series of deep outfall canals linked to 23 pumping stations which rank among the largest in the world.

And they’re always working.

“Some of those lines just continuously drain water from the soils beneath the area and into the canals, even when there is no rain,” Waggoner said. “So there is this constant tapping into the water table.”
 What they are proposing as a remedy is a $9 billion plan they say might help stabilize the water table.
That acknowledgement began to turn into citizen action in 2013 with the release of the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, which was funded by state and federal grants.  Developed by Waggoner’s firm in collaboration with water management experts from the Netherlands and around the world, the plan presents a $9 billion vision of how the Crescent City can turn its age-old enemy into a friend by raising the water table to help reduce subsidence.
Letting water pool up in order to reduce flooding sounds counterintuitive. I suspect this is part of what makes it attractive.  It makes a great Upworthy style headline. How we stopped the flooding will surprise you!

But maybe they can do some of what they say.  I suspect, though, that in order to function as intended, such a system needs to be implemented in full rather than in the compromised piecemeal way things actually happen in the real world.  So I'm skeptical.

What they can't do, though, is reinflate the sunken city. They can't even halt the subsidence, really.  Certainly they will hire some consultants. Certainly they will make names for themselves in the urban planning community which  is really what it's all about.  Remember, this is a sinking city. Everyone knows that already. The smart people are the disaster capitalists who can figure out how to enjoy the ride and peel off the profits from that while they still can.

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