“Water Managers Were the First Rulers of the Land”


Two recent, and contrasting, articles recently caught my attention. One, a BBC piece called “Miami’s Fight Against Rising Seas,” focuses not just on still-in-the-future possibilities of different sea level rise scenarios, but on what’s already taking place in Florida with scary frequency: flooded basements, pools of water in parking lots and on streets that used to be dry, expensive homes with water creeping closer to the front doors.

The other is a New York Times article on how the Netherlands deals with the encroaching ocean. The process is not something new there, prompted by predictions of what might happen; the Dutch, throughout their history, have known little else. A great deal of the country lies below sea level. One Rotterdam city official notes, “Water managers were the first rulers of the land. Designing the city to deal with water was the first task of survival here and it remains our defining job.” Rising sea levels will increase the tides and storm surges, but far from being panicked at the prospect, the Dutch are viewing it in some ways as a business opportunity.

Where many American coastal cities are looking to build barriers such as floodgates or sea walls to hold back the water, the Netherlands’ philosophy is to let the water in: “to live with the water, rather than struggle to defeat it.” To accommodate the inevitable floods and storm surges, for example, Dutch cities like Rotterdam have extensive plazas, parks, and fields that are used for recreation but are actually designed to collect water when needed. Many US cities do something similar, but on a smaller scale, with dry ponds that serve as parks or soccer fields for much of the year but collect water during large storms.  

To be sure, the Netherlands also invests in barriers, such as the massive Maeslantkering, a floodgate built 20 years ago to protect the Port of Rotterdam, one of Europe’s busiest ports. (The NYT article has a very clear diagram showing how it works.) It has never actually been used, only tested, but nevertheless plans are underway to add to its height.

A Dutch government advisor quoted in the article notes, “We can’t just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter walls. We need to give the rivers more places to flow. Protection against climate change is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and the chain in our case includes not just the big gates and dams at the sea but a whole philosophy of spatial planning, crisis management, children’s education, online apps, and public spaces.”

Meanwhile, officials from coastal cities in the US, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and other countries regularly seek out Dutch expertise. “Like cheese in France or cars in Germany, climate change is a business in the Netherlands,” the article notes.

Florida, like the Netherlands, is mostly flat and has very low elevation (although most of it, at least, is a few feet above sea level; the state’s average elevation is about 6 feet). Officials there are rethinking many options piece by piece—installing one-way valves, for example, so that outfalls can drain stormwater to the ocean but saltwater can’t come through in the other direction, which it’s more and more often inclined to do. Zoning changes in some cities are elevating roads and requiring the first floor of new buildings to be slightly raised. Integrated pumping systems are being installed. Many of the changes are incremental but will buy residents some time to deal with the larger issues. SW_bug_web

  • Andy Tilton.

    The elevation of 6 feet in Florida is misleading unless it only includes the first few miles inland along the coast. The middle and north parts of the state have elevations 75 feet to 300 feet over broad areas. Even in southwest Florida, the eastern parts of Charlotte County are above elevation 50.

  • Steve Joplin.

    Hardly anybody in Florida has basements, because the water table is too high. I live in the north central part of the state at an elevation of more than 150 feet and my kids used to go dig sharks teeth out of a creek a mile from my house. That indicates to me that the land I live on probably used to be covered by the ocean. Also, the Dutch are not experts at climate change, they are experts at building cities on land that was already below sea level.


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