Sometimes in south Louisiana, we think we’re alone in dealing with rising sea levels, an eroding coastline and increasingly frequent catastrophic weather events.
But communities across the Interstate 10 corridor—from California to Florida—are facing similar challenges as they cope with flooding, droughts and issues related to resilience and sustainability.
Such was the takeaway from the second day of the Ten Across Water Summit, a two-day conference at the Water Campus bringing together experts from around the world to discuss the various challenges in the 21st century related to water, energy, human migration, urban development, and global commerce.
Speakers had messages that were both inspirational and sobering. At a panel discussion this morning on how other U.S. communities are dealing with their water issues, Houston-based land-planning expert Kinder Baumgardner of SWA discussed his city’s impressive network of natural bayous, which have been developed over the past two decades to serve both as a drainage system and a recreational amenity.
Yet as effective as the bayou network has been, both in reducing flooding and rebranding Houston’s image, it wasn’t enough to protect the city from the catastrophic flooding that Hurricane Harvey brought last year, a 500-year flooding event.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has developed three resilience plans in the past five years to prepare the city of four million residents for, among other things, the possibility that the city’s water system—85% of which is derived from sources across the San Andreas Fault—could be cut off in the event of a major earthquake.
“Part of being a changemaker and enabler is to be really honest about the fact that all our water could be cut off for six to 18 months,” said Los Angeles Chief Resilience Officer Marissa Aho.
In Jacksonville, Florida, a nonprofit advocacy group is focused on protecting and restoring the St. Johns River, which runs through the city’s downtown and is part of a major watershed for the area but has was dredged and straightened throughout the mid-20th century, thereby affecting its natural ability to help drain flood waters.
“One of the reasons we flooded so badly after Hurricane Irma (in 2017) is that we’re our own worst enemy,” said Lisa Rinaman, chief advocate of the St. Johns Riverkeeper. “We have antiquated infrastructure put in place in the 1970s and before in changing the natural flow of our river we’ve created a superhighway for the Atlantic Ocean.”
If there is reason for optimism, it is that communities are increasingly focused on these issues, the speakers said, having conversations around issues of resilience and sustainability, hiring administrators to serve as resilience officers, and devoting limited resources to planning and outreach.
On the other hand, many elected officials continue to ignore the threats posed by climate change and many residents are complacent.
“It’s been 24 years since our last (earthquake) in Los Angeles,” said Aho. “People have earthquake amnesia. How do you get them to realize it’s not always 72 degrees and sunny?”
While resilience conferences are increasingly common across the country, the Ten Across Water summit is the first to address a broad spectrum of issues related to water, energy and development.
“There’s been nothing else like this anywhere,” said John Davies, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which created the Water Campus and facilitated the conference. “People are really eager to have these discussions.”