Saturday, May 15, 2010

Putting the week in perspective

Wednesday, May 12 some of us had an excellent conversation over a scrumptious dinner of 3 different types of fish. Over the course of the day, Leo van den Brand, of the Province of Zeeland (see for a short interview) talked about how the Province has realized since the Delta Works were completed that closing off the estuary, while good for flood safety, has negative ecosystem effects and creates water quality problems. The Province is working with other stakeholders to look for solutions to some of these problems.

Many times during the week, a comparison was drawn between the human/environment and engineering/ecosystem interfaces between the Delta Works in the Netherlands and the Florida Everglades Restoration. An engineering solution to flooding was devised for the Okochobee area, which created extreme ecosystem and water problems in the Everglades. There were of course other engineering interventions along the history, including building a major highway through the Everglades.

Today, stakeholders are trying to come together to solve these environmental problems in the Everglades, although the United States is a different country, with different complications than here in the Netherlands. Often stakeholders are quick to jump to the judicial system, because the legislative branch of the U.S. government has historically been too slow to act on environmental policies. It is unfortunate sometimes that so many lawsuits are filed. So- how can stakeholders in the U.S. work more efficiently together, and try to emulate the Polder Method, as the Dutch call bringing stakeholders together to work towards a common solution. According to Leo van den Brand, coming to a solution can take 10 years, but the Dutch see it as necessary to keep stakeholders satisfied with the finalized solution.

Humans and the environment often can be at odds with eachother. How do we prevent this from happening? How do we change situations so that humans and the environment are not completely at odds, but have some semblance of synergy? After all, we have always and will always depend on the environment for our basic needs to be met.

Engineering is a field often seen through the lense of "building stuff," a field that causes negative effects in ecosystems. Why is this? Engineering in the past has considered safety and cost top priorities when solving problems. Now engineers are being taught to consider the environment. And yet- can engineers really consider the environment as a top priority when safety and cost are so ingrained in engineers' thinking patterns? Doesn't that mean that engineers need folks from other disciplines such as biologists or ecologists to be present in project decision-making, in order that we do consider the environment as best we can when coming up with solutions? The Dutch certainly believe so.

Particularly of interest, the Oosterschelde Storm Surge Barrier at the mouth of the Oosterschelde estuary was redesigned from its original proposal to entirely close off the estuary, making the estuary brackish or fresh. During the 1960's, (after the flood of 1953 that killed 2000 people mainly in Zeeland) people protested the closing of the Oosterschelde estuary. They were successful in affecting the design. Today, the Oosterschelde Storm Surge Barrier restricts some flow in that the piers stand where once nothing stood, but there are sliding barrier doors that close during the threat of high waters, which is not very often.

We can look at the past and have regrets, or we can be mindful of our past and look to the future, attempt our best and create an improved world in the process.


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