A decade after Hurricane Katrina devastated southern Louisiana, a nonprofit New Orleans startup accelerator called Propeller is part of a push to change how the region approaches the water that surrounds and defines it.
Founded to channel a post-Katrina burst of entrepreneurial energy in the city, Propeller helps companies that work on economically sustainable approaches to social and environmental issues. Late last month, the organization was awarded a $300,000 grant from the federal Economic Development Administration to support its work with organizations dealing with water issues, from urban drainage to coastal erosion.
One of the critical aspects of the program is bridging a traditional divide between groups working in the city and those working to preserve the area’s coastal wetlands, says Propeller programs coordinator Ginny Hanusik. "The problems we’re facing now are because there has been such a separation of the two areas throughout history," she says.
The flood-prone Crescent City’s approach has traditionally been to wall off neighboring Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, while building sophisticated drainage systems to rush rainwater away from the city and its suburbs. But drying out the urban area has paradoxically pulled much of the city further below sea level as the soil it’s built on settles and shrinks. That’s made storm-related flooding that much worse and weakened buildings on the sinking ground.
"New Orleans cutting itself off from water—that’s kind of been the trajectory of, we’re afraid of water, put up levees, don’t let any in," says Hanusik. "That’s caused incredible subsidence in the city and has made flooding worse when it does rain."
A tendency by area landowners to pave parts of their front yards, giving water less room to seep into the ground, has made matters worse, says Dana Eness, the executive director of The Urban Conservancy. The advocacy group participated in Propeller’s accelerator earlier this year, working on what it calls its Front Yard Initiative, spreading the word about fighting subsidence through landscaping.
"It’s PowerPoint presentations to neighborhood associations," says Eness. "It’s one-on-one with thought leaders within the communities."
Alongside Eness in the accelerator program was landscape designer Dan Johnson, a natural supporter of the Front Yard Initiative. His company, called Greenman Dan, markets and installs systems for collecting rainwater from lawns and parking lots so it can be used for irrigation or simply gradually released into the soil. That requires easing property owners away from an instinct to divert rainwater away from their land, generally into the street. Johnson’s system stores water in underground tanks built from modular blocks.
"It’s basically cubes that we could put in the ground and build to whatever size we need," says Johnson. "If someone has a permeable parking lot, we can absorb the water there in the tank, and then we can have it slowly percolate out of the tank into the surrounding soil, so it’s recharging the ground."
In the nearby city of Hammond, another Propeller accelerator alum, called Wetland Resources, harnesses streams of fresh water it can find to support newly planted cypress and tupelo trees. Those trees serve as a kind of natural levee, buffeting the effects of a storm surge even during powerful cyclones like Katrina.
"Just a few hundred meters of cypress can completely take the waves out of the surge," says Gary Shaffer, a biology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, who cofounded Wetland Resources with his wife, Demetra Kandalepas. "They just baffle those waves."
Efforts led by Shaffer and Kandalepas, who also holds a doctorate in biology, have led to the planting of more than 100,000 of the trees in the past decade, but those efforts are futile if the plants don’t get a steady supply of fresh water. Overly saline water will kill the trees—a challenge in a state said to lose more than a football field’s worth of wetlands to the Gulf of Mexico every hour.
"We’ve tried to reforest areas that didn’t have that reliable source of fresh water, and they died," says Shaffer. "Now we will not take on any business unless we know we have a reliable source of fresh water."
One practical source of water is the output of wastewater treatment plants, whose sterilized product is essentially fresh water mixed with nutrients that can be absorbed by the trees. But just as allowing rainwater to collect to reduce flooding can be counterintuitive for New Orleanians, the concept still needs frequent explaining to residents concerned that the treated material could be toxic or otherwise upset the wetlands ecosystem.
"One way to refute that is by doing things like town meetings," says Kandalepas, who explains that the nutrients in the treated water are simply absorbed by the trees.
Business leaders who serve as mentors in the Propeller program have helped the scientist couple learn to better promote their work, Shaffer says.
"Neither Demetra nor I are business people—we don’t actually like business and marketing," he says. "We’re scientists. We’re very naive. This just isn’t something we’re good at."
Still, the two were adept enough for Wetland Resources to win a Propeller-affiliated water business pitch competition this spring. The company plans to use the $10,000 prize to patent and produce a specialized container for the tupelo trees that helps protect them from nutria, a rodent variety common in the area, and makes planting saplings substantially faster.
"We would very much like to see 10 million cypress and tupelo planted in coastal Louisiana in the next decade," says Shaffer. "If we did that, we would really make a dent on storm protection."
The Propeller program’s business mentoring is also a plus for Chris Spring, the founder of Connected Earth Sciences, set to take part in the water accelerator’s next round starting this month. Spring, a software engineer with a background in coastal geology, is developing inexpensive water quality sensors to measure changing conditions in the wetlands.
"We’re going to look at water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and redox potential—the water’s ability to cause redox reactions like rust strains that’s an indicator of all sorts of stuff—and then clarity," he says.
Spring says collecting that kind of data has historically been costly and laborious. He’s previously worked on projects where scientists took airboat rides into the marsh with expensive equipment, then analyzed results with high-powered computer workstations. He says newer sensor technologies should make the devices cheap enough that they can be mounted on fishing boats to continuously gather data.
He’s hoping Propeller can help figure out the right incentives to offer boat owners to install the devices. Once the sensors are in place and recording numbers, modern computing platforms should make it easy to compute and release the numbers to interested scientists, he says.
"I’m really excited about that, because this wouldn’t have been possible two years ago without the virtualized cloud infrastructure at such low cost," says Spring.
The Public Laboratory, a nonprofit that promotes citizen environmental science, also took part in Propeller’s program this year, working on an inexpensive, open source tool to measure water temperature, conductivity, and other data. The organization and interested volunteers are testing the device, dubbed the Riffle, in waterways from Boston to New Orleans to Colombia, says Public Lab outreach manager Stevie Lewis.
Since the tool design is public, anyone is free to tweak it and use it for their own purposes, she says.
"Everybody comes with their own objective and interest, but the idea with open source is that you can take that idea of what the tool is and does and apply it to your interests," says Lewis.
The group even held a hackathon late last year, exploring ways to make the device more useful for potential local users. That kind of collaboration is precisely the goal of the accelerator program, says Propeller’s Hanusik.
"Our vision is that by bringing together entrepreneurs that are working together in the greater New Orleans region with coastal restoration efforts, it can be this kind of critical mass that’s building a more sustainable region that’s able to live with water," she says.