With climate change and manmade destruction of the coast threatening the survival of southern Louisiana, some of the region’s top minds came together Monday to talk solutions.
The 5th annual Water Challenge — a collaboration between Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation, The Idea Village, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation as part of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week — showcased innovative solutions to water issues critical to Louisiana’s economy, ecosystem, and coastal protection.
Presenters included New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell; Steve Cochran, director for Environmental Defense Fund’s Mississippi River Delta Restoration project; and Ella Delio, director of environmental and regional initiatives at the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
The panel, moderated by WWNO News Director Eve Troeh, touched on the numerous challenges that this water issue presents. Delio discussed the problems with funding the state’s $50 billion master plan for coastal recovery, while Cantrell said that government members like herself need to show community members that they are making water concerns a real priority.
“We need to make people feel like they matter,” Cantrell said. “The people in government have a responsibility and this entails real communication. We can’t say one thing and do another.
Living with water, Delio said, requires innovative thinking that diverges from last century’s water management strategies.
“We’ve gotten into trouble with water partly because the traditional and close-minded thinking in past years was not working,” she said. “Our water infrastructure designed early on last century was very close-minded and didn’t really take into consideration how people would live with water.”
This requires thinking outside traditional avenues, much like the meandering Mississippi River.
“I think the Water Challenge allows us to open our minds and really think about new ways and more transformative ways to find solutions,” Delio added. “If we don’t have the Water Challenge, we’re going to just find solutions that don’t address the problem or just solve problems incrementally. In order to get the right solutions, we need entrepreneurship and innovative thinking.”
But the presenters expressed optimism that real progress is being made.
Cantrell discussed potential comprehensive zoning ordinances, like those used in Austin, Texas, which would charge companies fees to fund water management projects in the city.
Alicia Neal, director of Groundwork NOLA, detailed the work her organization does in providing high school students with workforce job training and skills like rain garden instillation.
So how does this water management talk go from potential energy to actionable, kinetic energy?
“Louisiana has always been a top-down, paternalistic state,” Cochran said. “But we’ve seen that that doesn’t work. We need a more ground-up and less top-down approach.”
“There are so many great grassroots organizations,” Delio added. “We need to start giving them the support they need.”
The $10,000 winner of the Water Challenge pitch contest were Gary Shaffer and Demetra Kandalepas of Wetland Resources, a start-up that provides storm protection to coastal Louisiana through massive planting of hurricane-resistant bald cypress and water tupelo.