Climate Change
7:00 am
Thu September 19, 2013

What The Dutch Can Teach Us About Sea Level Rise

Credit Nickolay Lamm / StorageFront.com

American scientists and engineers have been comparing notes with Dutch counterparts over the problem they both have: how to protect their low lands from rising sea levels.

In the U.S., it’s treated as a new problem. But the Dutch stopped panicking about sea level rise about 800 years ago and began to address it systematically.

Dikes and levies are a big part of the plan. But the Netherlands has also learned to pick its fights, and even let the water win sometimes.

Flood control is second nature to powerful local water authorities that have the power to veto development plans that lack flood provisions.

"In the U. S., that just wouldn't happen," said economist Dale Morris who works for the Dutch embassy in Washington, D. C.

In the U.S., it’s treated as a new problem. But the Dutch stopped panicking about sea level rise about 800 years ago and began to address it systematically.

At a sea level seminar in Miami Beach, Morris said Americans need to evolve in their approach to sea level rise as the Dutch have for generations.

"The Americans tend to work ad hoc or they look at a problem on a smaller, near-term basis. they don't look at the integration of the water system as a whole," Morris said.

But if they did, sea level rise -- at least in South Florida -- might look a lot less scary. Florida Atlantic University engineer Fred Bloetscher said the gradual inundation from the sea -- the doomsday scenario that most of us imagine -- is not the real problem.

It's the integrated system.

"For the majority of people in Florida, sea level will manifest itself as the ground water rises," Bloetscher said. "So, it's kind of an attack from below. You'll notice neighborhoods flood more often."

And that could lead to solutions such as neighborhood-scale water plants that turn storm water into drinking water, or send it underground or into the Everglades. By then, we'll be coping with a higher sea level instead of waiting for it... and, if the Dutch can be persuasive, thinking about it in new and more effective ways.