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Recharging New Orleans: Rain Barrels and Environmental Justice

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Read more: publiclab.org/n/17478


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A version of this story by Hilairie Schackai is published in Public Lab's Community Science Forum, Issue 15. Photos courtesy of Hilairie Schackai. She is pictured to the left in the photo above.

Twenty-five years ago I was preparing to be a farmer. Never did it occur to me that my career would one day turn to a crusade for rain barrels. But here I find myself in post-Katrina New Orleans offering build-it-yourself rain barrel workshops to promote a low-cost, low-tech green infrastructure approach to localized flooding and stormwater management.

The first step in this direction took place in 2011, when I came up with the idea for the Gentilly Rainwater Harvesting Program. While working with a group called the Pontilly Disaster Collaborative, we commissioned an engineering study that found that if 15 percent of households in the Gentilly area were each to capture 100 gallons of rainwater from a storm, this could potentially alleviate "downstream" flooding at the Dwyer Canal in Pontilly. This finding sparked a realization that we can all take small measures, such as installing rain barrels, that collectively have a large impact.

The idea of capturing rainwater to prevent flooding kind of turns the rain barrel on its head, so to speak. Most people think that captured rainwater is used mainly for watering gardens. But it can also be used to counter subsidence. By emptying the barrel after each rain event, rainwater is returned to the soil. Using rain barrels for flood control in this way offers a new view of the municipal drainage system, allowing people to take some ownership in how we manage rainwater.

With a goal to eventually deploy 5,000 barrels in Gentilly to capture rain from storms, I developed strategies for promoting rain barrels. These included giveaways, presentations at neighborhood meetings, distribution events at strategic locations, demonstrations at area festivals and events, and group painting activities to decorate barrels. But the finest strategy of all was the backyard workshops---hosted by residents in the target area who would invite their neighbors. Building rain barrels together is surprisingly fun, even at the height of summer, as neighbors of all generations come together, swap stories, and occasionally exchange a few homegrown vegetables.

In 2014, I joined with Water Wise NOLA, an umbrella organization comprised of Global Green, landscape architect Dana Brown, and myself. Specializing in green infrastructure, Water Wise is an education and outreach organization offering a variety of workshops and demonstration projects, as well as a program nurturing residents to take on leadership roles in their neighborhoods. Water Wise is currently focused on the Tremé and 7th Ward neighborhoods, with around 30 rain barrels installed there. We are also involved in other types of green infrastructure interventions, including rain gardens, bioswales, concrete removal, tree plantings, and more.

Enter Recharge NOLA, a community benefit L3C social enterprise, named in part for the practice of returning rainwater to the ground to counter subsidence. Originally conceived in 2014 and ramping up in 2018, my Recharge model intensifies promotion of neighborhood-based solutions. While continuing to offer rain barrel workshops and demonstrations, Recharge will officially partner with neighborhood groups with the intention of increasing their capacity to proliferate the program. Essentially these partner groups---associated with targeted-area schools, churches, or nonprofits---will be operating Recharge Satellite Stations, where workshops can be offered, rain barrels can be purchased, and installations and routine maintenance can be scheduled for interested area residents. Opportunities for workforce training as well as entrepreneurial activities are available for those involved. All funds raised will be reinvested in the program and shared with the satellite locations.

I am currently rigging a trailer, a Recharge Mobile Unit, to be used in materials delivery and, more importantly, as a pop-up educational display for school events and neighborhood festivals. A Tulane University graduate student (working through the Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design) and I will be designing the interactive and illustrative components.

As I have come to believe, the humble-but-mighty rain barrel is not just a gateway into green infrastructure and stormwater management. It is much more, as rain barrel programs provide a strong platform for social action and community engagement. For isn't it all about is building stronger communities through shared experiences with a common goal? The power of collective action for positive social change can be a beautiful thing.

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You can read Hilairie's 2015 manual, A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Simple Rainwater Harvesting: New Orleans, at bit.ly/NOLARAIN. You can follow Recharge on social media via Facebook at FB.me/rechargenola and learn more about Recharge with Water Wise at waterwisegulfsouth.org.

At one time an avid gardener, Hilairie Schackai majored in plant science in college and has worked on several farms. In 2010, she was awarded an Audubon Society TogetherGreen Conservation Leadership Fellowship, which allowed her to launch her first (and New Orleans' first) rain barrel program. In 2017, Schackai received a Mayor's Community Excellence Award for her contributions to Welcome Table New Orleans, an initiative of Mayor Mitch Landrieu on race, equity, and community building.__


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