Managing our holy water

Story and Photos By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

Sisters of St. Joseph’s vision for water management about to become reality in New Orleans

In topographically challenged New Orleans, where “running water” can be a pejorative depending on whether it is flowing inside or outside the house, a long-promised, 25-acre stormwater management and flood mitigation project called the Mirabeau Water Garden can’t come on line quickly enough.

Now, after eight years of wading through design intricacies and navigating the expected governmental lazy river, the ambitious project made possible through the vision and generosity of the Sisters of St. Joseph – a project that can store 9.5 million gallons of water in a park-like setting and then slowly release it back into the city’s overtaxed drainage system – appears to be shovel-ready.

In an area where “100-year” storms have been a dime a dozen in the last 20 years, lead urban and environmental architect David Waggonner is itching to see how the innovative water retention area, crafted on the Mirabeau Avenue site in Gentilly on which the St. Joseph Sisters’ motherhouse stood before Hurricane Katrina, will transform both the hydraulics of the surrounding area and, more importantly, the deeply held view that the only solution to keeping the city safe from flooding is to pump water out of the New Orleans bowl.

Pioneer vision of sisters

“The sisters were way ahead – maybe because their faith lets them move forward,” said Waggonner, the founding principal of Waggonner & Ball, who first approached the Sisters of St. Joseph in 2011 when he heard they might be thinking of making their land available for the project.

When the motherhouse took on seven feet of flooding from Katrina in 2005 and then was struck by lightning and gutted by fire in 2006, the sisters prayed about what to do with the large and mostly undeveloped site they no longer needed. As New Orleanians began returning home from the Katrina diaspora, the sisters easily could have sold the undeveloped parcel for millions as homesites, using the money to provide for the retirement needs of their aging members.

Instead, after meeting for months with Waggonner and latching on to his vision about working with the environment to manage water – a project that might encourage others to do the same – the sisters decided to jump-start the project by leasing their land to the city for $1 a year, a monumental step on the way to securing FEMA and other governmental funding to construct the garden.

“We could have sold the property 15 times to this day,” said Ed Sutoris, who oversees the congregation’s properties from his office in Chicago. “Every two weeks someone is calling me. It probably was worth about $2-$4 million. But the sisters’ definition of ‘best use’ was this project. This caught the heart of the sisters because if they could show that this 25-acre parcel could protect thousands of surrounding acres, then that would be big enough proof to encourage other landowners in New Orleans to do something similar.”

“Actually, we kept vigil with that land, praying that some idea would come to us that would help the land serve the people of New Orleans, just as our sisters had done all those years,” said St. Joseph Sister Pat Bergen, the former congregational leader, who lives in St. Louis. “When David approached us with this idea, we initially knew this is what we were praying for. This holds the potential for real systemic change in our thinking and acting in relationship with water.”

Construction to begin soon

Waggonner said he has been told by Mary Kincaid, manager of the city’s Sustainable Infrastructure Program, that the first phase of the $20 million project finally is being put out to bid, with construction expected to begin by the end of the year. (The project was officially announced in February 2016.)

The major phase of the $20 million project – the gross water storage features – will cost about $13.2 million and is expected to take 14 months to complete. The second phase calls for the construction of educational buildings by 2022, Waggonner said. The buildings will be used to teach students and others about the science of water management and how the site’s newly planted cypress trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses will help create an ecosystem that can mitigate flooding.

The site is bounded by Mirabeau Avenue on the north, Owens Boulevard on the south, St. Bernard Avenue on the west and Cartier Avenue on the east. It will have stormwater features such as large storage basins, which will allow the water to flow to perimeter “bioswales” and “bioretention cells,” which will store and filter water and allow it to “infiltrate” the ground. Excess water will be released back into the drainage system.

An interesting geological aspect of the site is that the southern end is largely porous sand – from an old barrier island, the Pine Island Beach Trend – that runs east to west across the city. A monitoring system will be installed to see how far and how fast the water travels to surrounding areas.

The northern part of the site has a higher concentration of clay. Planned for the northeast corner is a reflection area amid a series of oaks, commemorating the Sisters of St. Joseph for their commitment to the project and to the people of New Orleans.

Design plans have changed slightly over the years, including the ability now to bring water in from the southeast corner (Owens and Cartier) through gravity. A large portion of the water will come into the site from the northwest corner at St. Bernard and Mirabeau.

“There is pumping involved from the low culvert under Mirabeau,” Waggonner said. “The water has to be lifted with a small pump station, and then we can let it flow through the land. The water will return to the culvert, but that culvert would have been vacated by that time. The rains we have been getting lately have been so crazy that everything you can do to capture and delay the water – it’s all just buying time.”

City Park water retention

Ramiro Diaz, architectural designer at Waggonner & Ball, said another large retention area – in City Park on the other side of Bayou St. John from the sisters’ property – is being planned. Lagoons will be deepened there to handle more stormwater and then release it slowly.

“The challenge of City Park is that it’s higher than the neighborhood around it,” Diaz said. “Because it doesn’t have a drainage system, it hasn’t sunk as much as the rest of the city. But we can take water from Lake Vista, which normally goes to Lakeview, and put it in City Park. There’s a lot of capacity in the park. The park is huge – probably more capacity than we’re going to use.”

Living through such wet summers, Waggonner said he understands why New Orleanians get edgy with the approach of a gathering storm. His office on Prytania Street, despite being protected by a floor raised eight inches and by an elevated sidewalk, took on water from wakes caused by cars during a recent thunderstorm.

Water as beauty, not terror

“I was watching the rainwater run by and saw how beautiful and bright it is,” he said. “I’m bothered by the fact that I’m traumatized by something so beautiful. Clear, running water is gorgeous, yet we can’t enjoy it because we don’t know how to play with it. The Dutch say they ‘play with the water.’ We’re a long way from being able to play with the water. It’s hard to be in praise of water when you see your street flood every other day.”

Despite citizens’ skepticism of the performance of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, Waggonner said environmental factors, such as warmer climate that produces more rain, have exacerbated the city’s drainage problems. He said development, especially more cement parking lots, creates additional runoff that can’t be handled by the city’s current drainage system.

“I’m happy to say it’s improving,” Waggonner said. “It used to be they were just draining water, but now they’re managing water. They’ve begun to understand their powerlessness against it all. They can’t hold to this mantra of ‘we have to pump every drop of water that falls.’

“I don’t think it’s a good public position to say the problem was the former management. The problem is the entity has been really under-invested for a long time and caught with a lot of old thinking and political pressures.”

Waggonner said warmer, wetter weather patterns are an “existential threat.”

“It’s just a fact that if it’s hotter air, it’s going to suck up more moisture,” he said. “This is the challenge – for people to really start understanding the water cycle.”

A. Baldwin Wood’s “world-class” invention in the early 1900s – the screw pump that could lift large quantities of water – drained large parts of previously uninhabitable New Orleans, Waggonner said, but that engineering breakthrough came with “a tradeoff.”

“The part that was not factored in was the subsidence,” Waggonner said. “The pumping of shallow groundwater was not understood as the cause of subsidence. Because of the way we’ve constructed our drainage pumps – with open joints – and because we put these big suction pumps on them, you’re constantly dragging down the groundwater, which is dragging down the land. So, we’re actually sinking the city by pumping it. This system has a radical cost, an unsustainable cost.”

Waggonner said he is curious to see how much water the Mirabeau Water Garden can actually hold. It is estimated at 9.5 million gallons, but he expects it will be more.

Sisters witnessed to faith

For now, Waggonner is buoyed by his collaboration with Dutch groundwater expert Roelof Stuurman, who has stressed the need for innovative water management areas in New Orleans, and with the Sisters of St. Joseph.

“It’s always been a matter of trust with the sisters,” Waggonner said. “And, in this case, perseverance, because it’s been years.”

Sister Pat, speaking from upriver St. Louis, agrees.

“We’ve deepened and accelerated our prayer,” Sister Pat said. “The need is visible and apparent. All of us sisters are praying that movement will happen on this adventure quite quickly because we see its potential – and its hopes for the people of New Orleans. This can be reflected in urban areas all over the world. We’re praying all the harder that action be taken because this really holds hope.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at

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