California Turns to Holland for Flood Expertise With climate change, California's Sacramento Delta faces a future of catastrophic flooding. So the state is turning to the expert in keeping land dry: Holland. More than half of the country is below sea level, and the Dutch are well versed in keeping the sea at bay.
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California Turns to Holland for Flood Expertise

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California Turns to Holland for Flood Expertise

California Turns to Holland for Flood Expertise

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Time now for Climate Connections, our series with National Geographic. Today, we visit two places facing the threat of flooding.

BLOCK: Around the world, global warming will increase the risk of catastrophic floods, especially in areas below sea level. That's bad news for one part of California near San Francisco. Floods there could not only destroy homes and farms, but could also endanger a major source of drinking water.

SIEGEL: For ideas and inspiration, California is looking to the Dutch. More than half of the Netherlands lies below sea level. Its entire history has been shaped by the need for pumps, dikes and other barriers to keep back the sea.

NPR's Joe Palca visited California and the Netherlands, and he found that while the Dutch are taking pretty radical measures to manage flooding, Californians are still trying to figure out how to start.

JOE PALCA: California's water problems are largely focused in an area called the Sacramento Delta. It's a triangle of land just northeast of the San Francisco Bay area. It's prone to flooding today and climate change is just going to make things worst. There are many ways to protect the Delta and its residents, but deciding on one and actually doing something won't be easy. Part of the reason is that there are a lot of federal agencies with opinions.

Mr. PHIL ISENBERG (Veteran California Politician): The Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on and on and on and on.

PALCA: Phil Isenberg is a veteran California politician. He's tracked water issues for decades. Isenberg says in addition to the federal agencies, there are comparable state agencies.

Mr. ISENBERG: Hundred and hundreds and hundreds of water districts, of flood-control districts, of irrigation districts - add all those together, any decision that gets taken in the Delta, in one sense or another, involves over 200 different government agencies.

PALCA: Then you've got the environmentalists, agribusiness, developers and cities all at odds about what to do.

Jeffrey Mount is a geologist at the University of California, Davis.

Mr. JEFFREY MOUNT (Geologist, University of California, Davis): You also have this situation in California where we are a bunch of consensus wimps, and that is, we try to achieve consensus about most things that we do. And frankly, this is one of those problems where there's going to be winners and losers, and we're never going to come up with consensus in this.

PALCA: Mount says building higher and higher walls to keep back the flood waters won't work. It'll be ruinously expensive, and it's probably not the way to keep up with the sea-level rise climate change is bringing.

So, what to do? Mount says someone has to take charge and make tough decisions. And that's what he says is happening in the Netherlands - consensus is dead; it's time for action.

Mr. MOUNT: They're actually cognizant of the fact that they are on a trajectory of change. And they're trying to adapt to that change rather than simply make it work for today, they're trying to make it work for tomorrow at the same time. We haven't got there yet.

PALCA: Mount says the Dutch people and the Dutch government know there's no alternative.

Mr. ERIC BOESSENKOOL (Directorate-General, Dutch Water Ministry, The Hague): The dikes go here, and there's nowhere to go. So if you look at it dramatically, we're with our backs against the wall.

PALCA: Fifty-five hundred 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 know they have to work together when it comes to flooding. They have a thousand-year history of maintaining the dikes to keep the water out. 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 means taking charge and telling people who live in those areas that they have to move.

Mr. BOESSENKOOL: 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 because we need the space to keep the system safe.

PALCA: So I would - I wouldn't - I shouldn't think that it's just a question of walking down to the local farmer, knocking on the door, and saying, I'm sorry, we need to take your land back. And he goes, oh, fine. Thank you, and just tell me how soon I have to move and I'll be happy to go for the good of my country?

Mr. BOESSENKOOL: Yeah. Well, it doesn't go like that obviously.


(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: I've been telling everybody that's how Holland is different from America, and now you're disabusing me of that.

Mr. BOESSENKOOL: Well, I'll try to put some nuance into that maybe.

PALCA: Nuance, sure, a kinder and gentler version of move, but basically move is the bottom line whether people are happy or not.

There are flood-control projects going on throughout the country now, and they're just the start.

Piet Dircke is an executive with the water engineering firm Arcadis.

As we stand by the water in the port city of Rotterdam, Dircke says the Dutch are considering their options for the next several centuries.

Mr. PIET DIRCKE (Program Manager, Arcadis): Dealing with climatic changes adapting to that is a flexible process that will never end any more. We will have to adapt again and again.

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

Joe Palca, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And at, you can see videos of climate science in action. They're from Public Television's "Wild Chronicles."

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