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ChangeWorks: Working with water

NolaVie partners with Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation on this series of articles focusing on New Orleans entrepreneurs devoted to social innovation. Today Greenman Dan talks about changing the way we think about storm water. 

Dan Johnson: working with water, instead of against it

Dan Johnson: making water work for us

For generations in New Orleans, storm water run-off has been treated like an unruly houseguest: Get it out before it ruins everything we hold near and dear.

But in the post-Katrina landscape of the city, a new and radical strategy is under way that flips decades of water phobia on its head.

It’s called “living with water,” and it looks to use water positively rather than expel it.

Dan Johnson is part of this revolution. As the founder of Greenman Dan Inc., Johnson recently transitioned his landscaping business into a forward-thinking leader in water management.

Johnson has developed a system for collecting rainwater at homes, so that instead of working against water — by sending it out to the street and ultimately pumping it out of the city — people can work with the water.

New Orleans rainwater runs into the street and, ideally, into a storm drain. But what often happens is that it collects on the concrete and sits, ruining roads and causing subsidence.

Instead of allowing storm water to run into the street and wreak havoc, Johnson’s system catches the rain from a home’s roof and diverts it into rain gardens or drip irrigation for lawns and gardens.

This system, Johnson says, is designed to help homeowners as well as the city deal with storm water. Unlike many parts of the country that battle severe droughts during the summer months, New Orleans instead has excess water and few productive methods of dealing with it.

“It’s not a water conservation issue to the degree of a drought,” Johnson says. “It’s more of an issue of how can we help minimize the flooded streets, how can we help with subsidence while also saving people money on their water bill.”

Currently, the city treats and filters millions of gallons of water to send to the population for home water use. At least half of that water is not used for drinking purposes, Johnson says, but rather for non-potable uses like irrigation. If homes and businesses can harness their own rainwater and use it themselves, the city could cut down on its water treatment costs.

The city saves and homeowners save. That’s a rare win-win.

Johnson started Greenman Dan in 1999 as a lawn maintenance company, gradually expanding the business into landscaping, contracting and irrigation. Only recently did he begin his foray into the water conservation arena.

“We’ve been doing landscaping for numerous years here in the New Orleans area, but most of it has been for aesthetics, for beauty,” Johnson says. “We’re trying now to cater to something with purpose, something that actually helps community but also benefits property.”

Johnson recently completed his first rainwater collection system at a house in Lakeview. Obtrusive pipes or tanks were nowhere to be found, as the 1,000-gallon receptacle lay hidden under the back deck of the house. An abundance of greenery sprouted from neatly-kept mulch in the front yard, while a tiered rain garden made out of stone sat nestled among the plants. Water conservation without the garishness.

While there are very few companies in the area doing this type of innovative rainwater collection, Johnson says he is more than happy to see others follow his lead.

“I think other companies will start doing stuff like this, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he says. “Our motivation here is how does it trickle down. That’s how we see it. We can’t be the only ones doing it; there need to be others, too.”

Since starting his business 15 years ago, Johnson has seen a New Orleans entrepreneurial renaissance grow from a few people with ideas into a full-fledged movement. New Orleans is moving from a city that has problems to a city that deals with problems.

“I think we’ve gotten some new blood in the city, just different points of view,” he says. “We can’t always do things the way they used to be done. We have to correct it at some point.”

ChangeWorks is a partnership between NolaVie and Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation. Send feedback to [email protected] or [email protected]