Erosion Control

Staying Afloat

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Several events have converged in the last couple of months to make people consider more urgently than before our relationship to the environment. These include Hurricanes Florence and Michael, as well as the latest report from climate scientists, warning that we have until 2030 to reduce greenhouse gas pollution if we’re going limit the increase in temperature to less than 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit).

In the wake of the report, an article published a few years ago in the New Yorker has been circulating again, looking at what various cities around the world are doing to “climate-proof” their infrastructure. This seems as good a time as any to take a look at what’s working, and as so often when the question is how to handle water—flooding, erosion, and encroaching seas—people are looking to the Netherlands.

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Despite, or perhaps inspired by, its historical success at reclaiming and protecting land, the country continues to look for new ideas and several years ago hosted an architectural conference focused on helping cities cope with new influxes of water. The city of Rotterdam, where the conference took place, has put some of the ideas into practice. As the article notes, “Rotterdam is now experimenting with an architecture of accommodation: it has a floating pavilion in the city center, made of three silver half spheres with an exhibition space that’s equivalent to four tennis courts; a water plaza that serves as a playground most of the year but is converted into a water-storage facility on days of heavy rainfall; a floodable terrace and sculpture garden along the city’s canal; and buildings whose façades, garages, and ground-level spaces have been engineered to be waterproof.”

The country also handles much of its infrastructure differently than most US cities do. Rather than stringing distribution lines high on utility poles, where they’re vulnerable to wind and falling trees, the Dutch tend to bury them within water-resistant pipes, and the grid is redundant and “circular, rather than being a system of hub and spokes, so that, if a line goes out in one direction, operators can restore power by bringing it in from another source.” That has resulted in average total power outages per year of 23 minutes, compared to 214 minutes in many Eastern US states—or something on the order of days after a major storm like Hurricane Sandy, which left parts of Manhattan in the dark for five days. “The walls protecting Con Ed’s substation along the East River, at twelve and a half feet above the ground, were eighteen inches too low to stop the storm surge and prevent the consequent equipment explosions,” the article points out.

Other countries, especially island nations, are trying other measures. Singapore has spent more than $2 billion to improve its drainage infrastructure, including crest gates, pumps, and “a ten-thousand-hectare catchment area that is roughly one-seventh the size of the country. The system not only protects low-lying urban neighborhoods from flooding during heavy rains; it also eliminates the tidal influence of the surrounding seawater, creating a rain-fed supply of freshwater that currently meets ten percent of Singapore’s demand. Moreover, by stabilizing water levels in the Marina basin the barriers have produced better conditions for water sports.”

Whereas Rotterdam is largely preparing to let the water in and then deal with it, in the US we tend to think in terms of keeping it out with sea walls and other barriers. Many coastal cities are planning softer barriers as well—living shorelines, restored wetlands and marshes, and other ways to limit the impacts of storm surges. The trouble, some say, is that today’s storm surge level could be tomorrow’s everyday water level. A geophysicist quoted in the article notes, “Barriers are at best an intermediate solution. They will require at least twenty years to build … [and] we’d get protection for perhaps a few decades. Walls will keep out storm surges, but not the rising ocean, and they could cause a sense of false security that prevents us from finding real solutions.”

What do you think are the best investments we can make to protect cities and other infrastructure? Would you allocate more resources to changing the way coastal and vulnerable inland areas deal with storms and flooding, or to addressing the greenhouse emissions themselves?

Western Water Summit Call for Speakers Is Open

The Western Water Summit will take place January 22–23, 2019, in San Diego, CA. It focuses on all facets of water management: groundwater, surface water, wastewater, drinking water, irrigation, water law, reuse, generation, restoration, conservation and efficiency, and erosion and sedimentation. The Call for Speakers is open until November 1. Find more information about the conference tracks and registration at DE_bug_web

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  1. The Netherlands has embraced the rising water level as a normal consequence and adapted to it rather well. It’s pure vanity to think that we can “build an unsinkable ship (Titanic)” or stop an unstoppable storm. What we CAN do is to embrace the fact that “controlling” the sea is not going to happen, we can adapt to the sea while simultaneously working to undo the harmful effects of global warming.

    1. Addressing global warming is the existential challenge of our civilization. There is a revenue neutral proposal that’s being supported internationally called “carbon fee + dividend”. It places a surcharge on CO2 at the source of extraction and returns that fee in equal shares to households at the rate of 1 share per adult and 1/2 share for the first 2 children. That way people are reimbursed for the extra they will have to pay for atmospheric CO2 that they need or want. The fee starts at $15 per ton of CO2, the equivalent of 11 cents per gal. gasoline, and increases by $10 per ton annually. That way you know that your carbon footprint is going to be predictably more expensive and you can spend your dividend accordingly if you wish to, or you can buy a Hummer if that’s your choice. Businesses will need to adjust their CO2 footprint to stay competitive. This will result in lowering CO2 emissions to 50% of 1990 levels in 10 years. You can find the details and a well organized educational program and solid opportunities to influence the decision makers who are responsible for making this a reality in countries around the world at .

  2. Maybe the ‘scientists’ should be buying adds in China and India if they really want to address CO2 emissions as these 2 countries have done an abysmal job of lowering their outputs since the scientists starting tracking emissions. Why are only the US and Europe supposed to do something to prevent this imminent threat when it will affect the entire world?

  3. This is slightly off topic, except in the broader sense that it truly addresses reversing human causes of global warming and the resultant sea rise. The concept is called “Carbon Fee + Dividend”, a proposal that is revenue neutral and fairly addresses the largest contributor, CO2 released into the atmosphere. It places a predictable, steadily increasing fee on carbon extracted at the source, which the producers will certainly pass on to consumers since they’re not in the Santa Claus Brotherhood. ALL collected fees are then distributed in equal shares to all households at the rate of 1 share per adult and 1/2 share per child for only the first two children. The rationale for not rewarding large families is that creating a child is considered to be the largest single carbon producing action that a person can do. The carbon consumer then has the free will to spend the dividend any way he or she wishes, with the knowledge that the cost for continuing to use high CO2 emission products is going to steadily rise. This will certainly influence businesses to carefully consider their carbon footprint and become more efficient or be unable to compete with their competitors who do, and many end-product consumers will do so too. It’s estimated that pricing CO2 initially at $15 per ton (equivalent of 11 cents per gal. of gasoline), and increasing the fee by $10 per ton annually will result in an economy that is more productive and robust than it is today with the creation of many new jobs (solar and wind already employ more people than the coal industry),while reducing CO2 emissions to 50% of 1990 levels in 10 years.
    Does this sound too good to be true? I thought, yeah, probably, but I checked it out at: and found not only the details, but a well thought out plan to bring this to fruition through a combination of education and influencing, using the best practices of grassroots and grasstops organizing techniques. Even more amazing is that this is non-partisan, and is forming some common ground across the aisle in D.C.

  4. In response to David Jacob’s comment:
    When it is reported that China emits the most CO2 of any country we have to consider the population to get some real perspective on why it falls on developed nations like the US, Canada and Australia to change our consumption patterns if emissions are to be truly impacted. Simply stated we have the most ‘fat to cut’.

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