California Turns to Holland for Flood Expertise

The levee road Highway 4, in California.

Water is held back from a lower-elevation farm by a section of Highway 4 that serves as a levee road in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California. David McNew/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption David McNew/Getty Images

Why Climate Change Brings Flooding

  

A warming atmosphere also means a warming ocean. As water heats up, it expands and triggers a sea level rise around the world. By 2080, a U.N. panel predicts, this will have devastating consequences for millions of people around the world — rich and poor alike.

  

Read that story.

Hundreds of gallons of water flow down a hill during a dike test in Holland.

Hundreds of gallons of water flow down a hill from a container in Delfzijl, Netherlands, as engineers test a dike to get a better understanding of the risk of flooding there. Olaf Kraak/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Olaf Kraak/AFP/Getty Images

When you live near the water and below sea level, you had better be sure your flood defenses are in good shape. Holland is a country that knows this well; more than half of the country is below sea level, and throughout history the Dutch have constructed dikes and barriers to keep back the sea.

So it's natural that when policymakers in California looked for inspiration about what to do with their low-lying, flood-prone regions, they looked to the Dutch.

And now, Holland and California share another concern: Global warming is ratcheting up the risk of catastrophic floods.

California's water problems are largely focused in an area called the Sacramento Delta. It's a flood-prone triangle of land just northeast of the San Francisco Bay area. Climate change is going to make flooding worse, but deciding on a plan to do something won't be easy. Part of the reason is that there are a lot of federal agencies with opinions.

Phil Isenberg, a veteran California politician, has tracked water issues for decades. According to Isenberg, between federal agencies and state agencies, "any decision that gets taken in the delta in one sense or another involves over 200 different government agencies."

There are also environmentalists, agribusiness companies, developers and cities in the mix, all at odds about what to do. Jeffrey Mount, a geologist at the University of California, Davis, says California can't possibly make everyone happy.

"You have this situation in California where we are a bunch of consensus wimps," says Mount. "And frankly this is one of those problems where there'll be winners and losers, and we're never going to come up with consensus in this."

Mount says building higher walls to keep back the flood waters won't work. It would be ruinously expensive and is probably not the way to keep up with the sea level rise climate change is bringing. In considering solutions, California could benefit from the example of the Netherlands.

"They're actually cognizant that they're on a trajectory of change. And they're trying to adapt to that change. Rather than simply trying to make it work for today, they're trying to make it work for tomorrow as well," Mount says. "We haven't got there yet."

About 5,500 miles from the delta, Eric Boessenkool sits in his office at the Dutch Water Ministry in The Hague. His agency is in charge of Holland's aggressive strategy to keep climate change from swamping the country.

The Dutch federal government has concluded that it can no longer keep up with sea-level rise by building higher dikes. So it's considering innovative alternatives, such as building barrier islands in the North Sea. And it's trying to reduce the pressure on the dikes by allowing controlled flooding in certain areas.

But that can also mean forcing people to relocate.

"Of course, it's difficult to come in and say well, '30 years ago we wanted you to live here, to be a farmer, but now we want you to move out to keep the system safe,'" Boessenkool says.

Other flood-control projects are going on throughout the country, and they're just the start. Piet Dircke, an executive with the water engineering firm Arcadis, says the Dutch are considering their options for the next several centuries.

"Dealing with climatic changes," he says, "is a flexible process that will never end any more. We will have to adapt again and again."

And for the Dutch, adapting isn't something to debate about; it's something to do. Now.

Produced by Rebecca Davis.

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