Managing water is expensive and never-ending. But as the Netherlands’ long history with flood control shows, it can be done.
A 36-mile-long diversion ditch around Fargo. A network of 100-plus artificial lakes for retaining water, many of them a square mile or more in size. An effort to forestall a disastrous breakout by draining the brimful Devils Lake.
Manipulating Lake Sakakawea’s water level in hopes of avoiding massive Missouri River floods.
These and other projects you’ll find detailed in today’s “Living with Water” section, which is devoted to water management.
But together, they beg this overarching question:
Is it worth it?
Really, is it? Twenty years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, North Dakota and Minnesota newspapers could have found plenty of flood-and-drought stories to fill pages with. The Souris-Red-Rainy River Basin Commission’s study of regional water issues ran eight full volumes, and that was in 1972.
The Tri-State Waters Commission was set up “to correlate plans and prevent duplication of efforts” – in 1937.
Yet even after a century of our best efforts, even after studies, commissions, dikes and dams, the only safe prediction remains this: Water will win in the end.
So, what’s the point?
Don’t we remember the ultimate lesson of the story of King Canute – the fact that the good king tried but failed to hold back the tide?
For an answer, start by looking at the photos on this page.
The photos show windmills in the Dutch town of Kinderdijk. The network of windmills is the largest in the Netherlands; they’re one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions.
And they remind us that not only do humanity’s efforts to manage water go back a long, long way, but also those efforts can and do get things right.
That is, if “getting things right” means enabling people to live comfortably in conditions that range and sometimes swing radically from “too wet” to “too dry.”
The Netherlands, of course, has been battling “too wet” for more than 1,000 years. For example, the Kinderdijk windmills date back to 1740. That was when residents built the structures to pump water out of the perpetually flooding “polders,” the diked-and-drained lands that make up so much of the Netherlands.
Now, go back an additional 300 years, this time to 1421. That was the year of the St. Elizabeth flood, which flooded the polders near where the photos on this page was taken.
According to Dutch legend, villagers spotted a cradle floating far off on the flooded area. As it approached, they also saw a cat jumping back and forth to keep the cradle from capsizing. Closer still, and the villagers saw in the cradle a baby, sleeping, smiling and dry.
Hence the name, “Kinderdijk” – “Children’s dike.” Like so much in Holland, the name pays homage to the country’s centuries-long battle against floods.
In 1998, the Grand Forks Herald was part of a Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba delegation that visited the Netherlands. A few months earlier, the 1997 flood had ravaged Grand Forks and other communities, and the delegation hoped to study and learn from the Dutch experience.
The country’s situation astounds observers to this day. “Grand Forks frets about its swollen river for a few weeks in the spring,” the Herald noted in a story after the delegation’s
“Ten million people and 60 percent of The Netherlands would be flooded every day if the country let nature have its way.
“North Dakota is flat. But The Netherlands are flatter, if such a thing is possible. A full third of the country’s tabletop-flat terrain actually sits below sea level. On the far side of Dutch seawalls is the ocean, and waves crash against the barricades 24 hours a day.
“No wonder one of the country’s national heroes, honored in statue and song, is a boy – the legendary boy who kept his finger in the dike.”
The cat-and-the-cradle of Kinderdijk is the same, another favorite Netherlands folk tale.
As these examples show and as the delegation learned, flood control has forever been a part of the Netherlands’ character and lore.
So, has it been worth it?
Absolutely. Without a doubt. As the Dutch experience shows, managing water can be a costly and eternal struggle.
But the Netherlands – one of the most prosperous and respected democracies on Earth – learns from its mistakes, improves its systems over time and recovers from the inevitable setbacks.
America’s Upper Midwest can do and is doing the same.
Sure, water will win in the end. But that won’t happen for a long, long time, if Netherlanders have their way. Major cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam are protected against storms that take place on the order of once every 10,000 years.
And as for King Canute, all he did was bring his throne down to the water’s edge, lift his scepter on high and issue a command. The tide kept rolling in.
Perhaps he should have left his scepter in his castle and instead come armed with the control box for the Maaslantkering. That’s the set of swinging, Eiffel Tower-sized gates that close the waterway to Rotterdam when the North Sea starts to surge.
The gates are just one part of the Netherlands’ Delta Works coastal protection system, which the American Society of Civil Engineers has dubbed one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
And with the Maaslantkering in the distance and the green “close” button in his hand, old Canute might have had better luck.
Tom Dennis – Grand Forks Herald opinion page editor.