Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Living with water"

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, we kept wondering (out loud) why U.S. officials continued their clearly flawed approach to flood control. This was especially perplexing given that other more effective systems existed in other parts of the world.

So thank you Lisa Jackson (U.S. EPA Administrator) for traveling to the Netherlands to get a firsthand look at integrated comprehensive systems for "living with" rather than trying to control water. Hopefully we'll be able to bring these design approaches to Gulf coast communities here in the U.S.

Sooner rather than later. (GW)

US Environment Chief Praises Dutch Water Systems

By Toby Sterling
The Associated Press
May 26, 2009

Amsterdam - The U.S.' chief environmental official said Tuesday that America can learn much from the way the Dutch manage water - focusing more on living with it than on trying to control it at every turn.

"As climate changes and we start seeing more and more rain we have to stop fighting it," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said. "There's not enough energy in the world to fight it."

Jackson is accompanied on the weeklong visit to the Netherlands by a delegation from Louisiana - a low-lying area, like the Netherlands. Louisiana officials turned to the Netherlands for inspiration in redesigning the state's water defenses after Hurricane Katrina caused levies to fail, flooding New Orleans.

The history of the Netherlands, where two-thirds of the 16 million population lives below sea level, has been shaped by its struggle to keep dry. The country is renowned for its hard-won expertise in water management and flood defenses.

Recently, policy makers here have adopted a philosophy they term "living with water" - which means working with nature whenever possible and accepting that simply building dikes higher and higher will lead to disaster.

New techniques include pumping sand into strategic offshore locations where currents in the North Sea sweep it into place, bulking up dunes; re-establishing minor waterways and removing pavement to allow the country to absorb sudden influxes of water; and designating zones for intentional flooding in an emergency.

Last year the Netherlands announced more than euro100 billion (US$140 billion) in new spending through the year 2100 to prepare for the effects of global warming.

Jackson said she was most impressed by "the idea that when it rains, the rush is not to pump out, but to be able to hold an amount of water."

"All over the country, especially in densely populated areas, we are fighting the fight of pavement," she said. Too much pavement, she said, increases the volume and speed of water runoff, and leads to increased pollution.

She said the U.S. Clean Water Act was "powerful legislation" that could be used to help shape future building projects along Dutch lines - with a greater ability to absorb sudden influxes of water rather than attempt to prevent them.

She said she planned to study Dutch methods of dealing with runoff pollution from the country's intensive agriculture sector - and from its cities, which are some of the most densely populated in the world.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, was visiting the Netherlands for the third time since Katrina struck.

She said her focus this time is on the organizational side, learning how Dutch water districts raise money and work with other governmental bodies and the citizenry to reach consensus on what should be done.

"The Dutch approach ... is a more integrated approach. Our approach is very stove-piped in a sense," she said.

Since Katrina, Louisiana has been guaranteed some funding for water defenses from the offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico, but Landrieu said that wasn't enough.

She said Dutch water boards, which are elected and have the power to tax, were an important element in the country's policy mix.

"Although it's politically difficult you've got to have some cost or surcharge associated with property that each individual homeowner needs to contribute to the long-term support of being safe in their neighborhood."


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