A group of people stood on the bank of a canal in New Orleans East earlier this month and scanned the water’s surface, looking for a clear spot. Most of the surface was covered with invasive water hyacinths. 

They stopped near a dead turtle, excited to find a clearing — the perfect spot to test the water quality of the Maxent canal, off of Michoud Boulevard in Village de L’Est.

The water testing excursion was part of Waters BY-YOU, a collaborative effort by local nonprofits and residents to revitalize New Orleans East’s drainage canals. The groups are conducting six workshops to brainstorm ways to make the canals that wind through New Orleans East better serve its residents. The workshop events aim to help residents understand the city’s water systems and to gather community feedback to design and build green infrastructure around the waterways. The effort is funded through an EPA grant, the groups said. 

Khai Nguyen is the co-executive director of Song Community Development Corporation, a Village de L’Est-based advocacy group and one of the event’s organizers. Born and raised in Village de L’Est, Nguyen said this project is crucial to his neighborhood and to New Orleans East as a whole. 

“We want to focus on New Orleans East because you know, a lot of times New Orleans East is overlooked or forgotten, but also New Orleans East is surrounded by water,” he said.

The groups envision a future for the waterways that makes them recreational resources, not just drainage tools. In June, the groups took Versailles residents kayaking in Bayou St. John to give people an idea of what the waterways in Village de L’Est could look like, Nguyen said. 

Credit: Minh Ha / Verite News

“In other communities, like especially Bayou St. John, waterways are places where people can go have picnics and kayak on the water, it’s a resource for the community,” he said. “Why can’t our waterways be something similar, where families can go hang out?”

The main focus of the effort is to clean up the Maxent Canal, which has been a fixture in the city’s Vietnamese community for decades, and then begin tackling other waterways in New Orleans East. 

The canal winds through Village de L’Est, a neighborhood that saw an influx of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s during and after the Vietnam War. 

Since then, the Vietnamese American community has cultivated the land along the banks of the lagoon, growing Vietnamese crops that otherwise would be rare or expensive, such as Malabar spinach and sugar cane. Some residents have sold their crops for years at a local farmer’s market, which now meets every Saturday at a strip mall on Alcee Fortier Boulevard.

Many of these gardeners irrigate their crops with water from the Maxent canal, Nguyen said.

However, there have been concerns over the quality of that water in the past two decades. 

The canal was at the center of debate in 2006 when Mayor Ray Nagin established the Chef Menteur landfill as a place to dump debris and trash that littered the city after Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee breaches that resulted in widespread flooding. The landfill was located across from the canal, leading Village de L’Est residents to voice concerns that toxic runoff could contaminate the water in the canal. Following a series of protests and legal wrangling, the landfill ceased operation after a half-year run. 

Unrelated testing by local researchers in recent years has indicated high levels of fecal coliform and E. Coli, Khai Nguyen said. 

Recent research suggests that leaking sewers and sewerage infrastructure have contaminated the canal. A 2022 Tulane University study took samples from five sites across the waterway, finding fecal contamination.

Song CDC is continuing to test the water as part of the revitalization project, Khai Nguyen said.

Village de L’Est resident Tham Nguyen, 78, avoids the lagoon water in her work as a farmer at VEGGI, a farming collective run by Song CDC. VEGGI uses only pipe water for their crops, Tham Nguyen said.

“They would close off the farm if we ever used the water from the lagoon,” Tham Nguyen said. “It’s so dirty, you can’t use it for anything. You will get sick from consuming it.”

Holly Fraychineaud, a water quality technician with the Pontchartrain Conservancy who was at the Saturday event to demonstrate water testing, told attendees that the water in the canal could pose health risks. She advised people against swimming or fishing in the lagoon or using its water for crops.

A limpkin stands in the Maxent canal, surrounded by trash and water hyacinths, on August 25, 2023. Credit: Minh Ha / Verite News

Community members and experts at the event agreed that the first step to restoring the canal is to clean up the litter that people throw into it, including bottles, cans and even car parts. Event attendees also agreed that there is a need to clear out overgrown aquatic vegetation, like the invasive water hyacinth, and keep weeds at bay.

The responsibility for canal maintenance and cleanup falls to the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board. Aron Chang, an architect and researcher working on the revitalization effort, said he believes the canal is low on the agency’s priority list due to its distance from the rest of the city. 

Grace Birch, a spokesperson for the Sewerage & Water Board, said the agency’s underfunding requires it to prioritize other parts of the city that have less stormwater storage capacity than New Orleans East, which has more surface area to hold that water.

“Everyone is our priority,” Birch said. “If there are so many priorities and so little funding, these are tough decisions that we have to make every day.”

The agency recently put out a contract for bid to remove water hyacinth in the canal sometime this winter, Birch said. 

During the Nov. 4 event, the group also began to envision types of green infrastructure that could help bring the Maxent Canal back to life.

Mark Schexnayder, an environmental scientist with the engineering firm Batture, came to the event to discuss some of those options. He said bioswales, or channels that help move stormwater runoff along while filtering out debris, would be extremely beneficial for New Orleans East. Bioswales help recharge groundwater tables, which would help alleviate the subsidence the area faces.

The Maxent canal, pictured here on Nov. 4, 2023, winds through the neighborhood of Village de L’Est in New Orleans East. Credit: Minh Ha / Verite News

Other green infrastructure ideas include solar panels, walking trails, wetland buffers and rain gardens. The idea, Chang said in an interview with Verite News, is to fundamentally reintegrate natural processes that help reduce runoff and filter water in an urban landscape. 

But for these projects to succeed in the long term, Chang said there needs to be continued stewardship.

“People need to … understand why [green infrastructure] has been built in the first place, how it functions,” he said. “If you have all that understanding, maybe you won’t throw trash into it. Maybe you’ll be interested in helping with replanting things that die or anything like that.”

Ngot Mai, who’s lived in a home on Savoie Street in Village de L’Est for 48 years and attended the event, said she hopes the local government will make the health of the canal a greater priority.

“I hope the officials would know about us and help us so our future generations wouldn’t be affected,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story, published Nov. 14, incorrectly stated that an event held on Nov. 4 was held “last weekend.”

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Minh (Nate) Ha is a recent magna cum laude graduate from American University with a Bachelor's degree in journalism. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ha has spent the past four years in Washington,...