Water? Oh, that again.


We’re looking to get more of this on Wednesday.  Heigh-ho.

November 11, if you’ll cast your minds back, was a day with more than the usual high water.  By “usual,” I don’t mean as in “happens every day” — I mean as in “doesn’t seem strange.”

The international press took a small recess from its daily barrage of stories of bombing, war and death and swerved its attention to acqua alta.  Exciting stories about high water were hurriedly written by people whose brains were sending out sparks, like old Communist-era light switches.

As I sit here this evening, I can’t help noticing that 15 days have passed without a drop of water sneaking out of place.  But that’s not interesting, so nobody reports on that.  It’s more fun to treat each acqua alta as if it were the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse.

So here’s a bulletin: Another high water is forecast for Wednesday, which is more than likely because a large low-pressure system is bearing down on us, and a really strong scirocco will be blowing, and the moon will be full.  (There are also thunderstorms thrown in, no extra charge.) If I can know this two days in advance, so can all the people out there who keen and ululate when their stuff gets wet.

But what is really on my mind about acqua alta isn’t how normal it is, how there have always been acquas alta, ever since there was a lagoon.  I’m evaluating proportions.

The lagoon covers about 212 square miles.  The city of Venice covers about three square miles.  The lagoon has been here for 5,000 years.  The city of Venice for about 1,500, give or take.

The city and the lagoon were both designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1987, hence were considered worthy of the same attention and concern.  Not to mention all those blue ribbons awarded the lagoon by the RAMSAR Convention on Wetlands.

Yet when the tide rises, suddenly the lagoon doesn’t matter anymore.  Even people who think of themselves as lovers of nature and defenders of the environment seem to blank out on the fact that the lagoon is one of the most important wetlands in Europe; that it is one of the most important coastal ecosystems in the Mediterranean Basin, that it plays a crucial role in the life of aquatic birds all over Europe.  That high tide might be normal; that the lagoon might matter as much as Venice.  Nope.  You get a foot of water on the ground and suddenly it’s all about the city.  I think that’s wrong.

I really love acqua alta outside the city, where all the barene get to have a deep, luxurious soak for a few hours. It makes me feel good too.

I was thinking: What if we took an enormous batch of wilderness (say, Yellowstone National Park).  Then we decided to put a city there.  Why?  Well, just because we decided to.

Then the wilderness starts to be bothersome to the people in that city.  Therefore the wilderness has to be fixed so it won’t be so bothersome.  We’ve got to cut back on bears, and on wolves, and on antelope; let’s get those pesky (fill in the blank here) under control. There are too many (fill in here), so let’s send them away.  There is too much (fill in here) right where we want to (fill in here), so let’s fix that.  We need more space to park cars.  We need more electricity. And so on.  Day by day all that world that was doing fine before we got there becomes more and more of a problem.

I am not romanticizing the past, nor am I proposing that we all get in the car and drive back to Eden.  I know that the Venetians did plenty of jiggering with the lagoon in the olden days.  But they were actually on the lagoon’s side.  They understood it, they profited by it, they needed it.   Their main concern wasn’t having too much water, but too little — they diverted entire rivers, including the Po, to prevent the lagoon from silting up.  They liked the water.

Of course there were occasionally extreme acqua altas which caused extreme problems (such as ruining all the freshwater wells).  But no Venetian of the Great Days would have proposed anything like MOSE — inconceivably vast, and expensive, and demonstrably destructive to the lagoon, and utterly irreversible.  Anyone who damaged the lagoon, according to an old declaration, ought to be compared to someone who damaged the defensive walls of their city — an enemy of the state.

Conclusion: We’ve got a city where it really doesn’t belong, though we’re all really glad it’s here.  But the lagoon, not to put too fine a point on it, is just as valuable, and as irreplaceable, as the city.

So I want everybody to just get off the lagoon’s case.  I’m going to get the boots out, and then I’m going to bed.


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Categories : Acqua Alta


  1. Lynne Otter

    great stuff Erla, wellies on chin up……

  2. MaryK says:

    Brava! What’s a little wet feet once in a while after all?

    For me it’s just means doing a little pre-planning so I can actually get me and my luggage from my (low-lying) apartment to the vaporetto without getting soaked. No problem, no drama, and – as you say – it’s not like we don’t get fair warning.

  3. > MOSE – inconceivably vast, and expensive, and demonstrably destructive to
    > the lagoon

    The same large-scale and very expensive damming infrastructure has already
    been built by trained engineers to protect London, Rotterdam and even
    Russia’s St. Petersburg from the seas. Those monster sites work as
    advertised. Are those countries fools, just because the italian NIMBY knows better with their humanities-educated background?

    Furthermore, MOSE is not destructive to the city, in fact it defends it. The lagoon is not that important now, as nature will heal itself in some time, if people assist. Yet, if the stone Venezia crumbles, the surrounding lagoon will soon be filled in with dirt and plowed for crop, or the Marghera petrol refinery plant will use it for expansion, plus the coastline national highway will get 2 extra lanes added per direction.

    It is impossible to obtain funding for the long-term natural preservation of an unassuming-looking empty piece of flat land, puddle or marsh. Nature and real estate tycoons abhor vacuum!

    The lagoon only exists because of that powerful medieval maze located in its middle that protects it. Venezia is a city composed of buildings. Those buildings are made of bricks, but salt already extensively flowers on them at the surface level, destroying them. That salt came from adriatic seawater invasions. Every acqua alta event is a water-boarding torture session on architecture.

    The city is crumbling, many places are now dilapidated and the buildings can’t heal themselves. Ms. Erla or anybody else can have no clue about the structural stability of their venetian houses 15 or 50 years from now. When the buildings are gone, the lagoon is soon gone. MOSE or the flood of Noah, choose!

    If the italians are not willing to devote the money and effort to realize projects of technology and construction that preserve and protect
    the city of Venezia, then the gung-ho anglo-saxons should take over. Even the return of austrian rule would be better, compared to inactivity. Their bureaucracy at least works and can cast a few iron bridges.

    Enough of the NIMBY and the same mentality that got nuclear
    power-stations closed, so that Italy now imports so much of its electricity
    from the french, who unsuprisingly run their own reactors a stone throw on
    the other side of the border. Italy is still an industrialized nation, but the recent downward trend is undeniable, because everybody says
    nobody build anything.

    Don’t worry, it looks like MOSE funding, if it ever existed at all, is going for welfare…

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I said MOSE was damaging to the lagoon, and I stand by it.

      • > I said MOSE was damaging to the lagoon

        Erla, you are not paying attention! MOSE may damage the lagoon, but NOMOSE destroys the city and when the city is gone, the lagoon will be purposefully destroyed (a.k.a. redeveloped) by human greed and become a rice paddy or Marghera-2.

        The only reason the lagoon still exists is to reflect the beautiful silhuettes of venetian palaces on the water. Few care a damn about silly wildbirds and fishes, definitely not enough to finance the lagoon’s upkeep via tourism. You are better off with a damaged lagoon and an standing city, compared to a ruined city and a terraformed lagoon.

        Therefore MOSE is a must and the only measure of success is the protection it affords to the stones of Venice!

        • Erla Zwingle says:

          “Silly wildbirds and fishes”? Wow.

          • Erla Zwingle says:

            And by the way, do you live in Venice? Because if you don’t, all you know, or think you know, is based on what you read, much of which is unreliable, if not completely untrue.

  4. John Garrett says:

    Acqua alta is more of a problem than it used to be and is going to get worse. Relative to the land, average sea level in the northern Adriatic has risen by about 1.6m since Roman times, which means about 0.6m since the historic buildings in Venice were built. In Venice it rose about 20cm in the 20th century, about half due to 20-30 years of pumping water from the acquifers beneath the lagoon. The deeper wider channels needed to allow big ships to get to Marghera and Tronchetto. make it easier for water to get into the lagoon. 200 years ago the lagoon in the direction of Chioggia was not open water at high tide. All this without the sea-level rise from global warming: 20 cm a century is going to seem modest. The problem of course is the effect on the historic buildings now that the water fairly regularly comes about the level of the highest layer of waterproof Istrian stone. It is more than a nuisance.
    The question of what to do about is is complicated by Venice’s self-image as a seaport and the connection between Venetians and the lagoon. Combined these probably rule out the idea of just permanently restricting the connections between the lagoon and the Adriatic or simply building a dike around the city proper, although the resulting control of traffic might also alleviate the moto ondoso, another serious problem. This is not to say that I am any fan of the MOSE. Warm regards, John

  5. Debi says:

    Take some pics of the water, for your new blog telling us about it!

  6. Mary Ann DeVlieg

    Great post, Erla, as always!

    Your reminding us of the relative proportions of lagoon to man-made city reminds me of when I lived in northern California… people in a newly built-up area were complaining about bears scrounging around. They called the Ranger to see if he could do something to chase them away. “Ranger, these bears are trespassing on our property!” “Ma’am” he replied, “I reckon you are trespassing on theirs….”

  7. Andrew @ Blogging Guide
    Twitter: andrewrondeau


    How often does this happen?

    Here in the UK, we seem to be having places/homes flooded almost every other day.

    Luckily I don’t live in such an area but the poor people who do – it’s dreadful. Such a mess.


    • Erla Zwingle says:

      It’s happened twice in November, but it’s impossible to quantify or even predict very satisfactorily. I would guess that the homes being flooded in the UK are near rivers, which is a much more dangerous phenomenon.

      • Andrew @ Blogging Guide
        Twitter: andrewrondeau

        Yes, they are…mostly near rivers.


        • Erla Zwingle says:

          Rivers are a dramatically different problem when they overflow. Kind of like the difference between filling your bathtub and letting it run over, or standing under Niagara Falls. In both cases things get wet, true — but there the similarity ends.

  8. kathy says:

    Wow Erla you present an interesting and insightful perspective. I’ve seen documentaries on the challenges of addressing the acqua alta, but they always cast MOSE as the technological savior.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      A large part of the documentaries, written or filmed, are to some degree formed or influenced by the builders of MOSE and/or the scientists they pay to conduct studies — pretty much like the independent studies financed by drug companies. And then, most journalists don’t spend enough time here to get a fuller picture of the situation, or else they are assigned to write about a very narrow aspect of the project or situation. And fundamentally, it’s very difficult (impossible, actually) to find any report which explains why acqua alta is such a huge threat to the city. Every story starts with the assumption that it’s dangerous, but they never say why.

  9. John Garrett says:

    I’m with Erla in that I enjoy the lagoon more than I enjoy the city. However it is important to keep in mind that the lagoon of today is a creation of the Venetians.of times past Large scale engineering projects a few hundred years ago diverted the rivers dumping sediment into the lagoon, thus keeping it from becoming dry land. As a demonstration of how much sediment was involved, the Po delta has grown out from the shore in the same period. A good part of the materials would have ended up in the lagoon. The whole Punta Sabbioni area seaward of Treporti is also a recent product of sediment delivered by the diverted rivers that would also have ended up in the lagoon.
    In fact these may have been a bit too effective, so that the lagoon has gradually become more open water.
    Similarly the “murazzi” along the barrier islands are large scale engineering meant to keep the Adriatic out during “aqua alta”. In one sense MOSE is just an underwater extension of the “murazzi”. However unlike the passive murazzi MOSE will require an ongoing large operating budget which will be vulnerable to economic crises.
    The motorized water transport system is not large scale engineering but it is certainly having a negative impact on both the lagoon and the city via the moto ondoso.
    What would Enrico Dandolo have done?
    Regards, John

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      A few small clarifications. The “murazzi” were constructed to defend the Lido beaches from erosion. We can presume that ultimately that functioned as protection against acqua alta, but I’m not sure that was stated as their primary purpose.
      The fact that the lagoon has become “more open water” isn’t due to ANY action taken or not taken by the old Venetians, and NONE of their engineering projects conduced to this. The “open water” is a direct result of the drastic scouring and sucking effects of the tides created by the Canale dei Petroli, which was straightened and deepened to facilitate the passage of tankers to and from Marghera. At the beginning of the 20th century the inlet (“mouth”) of the lagoon at Malamocco was 3-4 meters deep. In the Sixties it was deepened to 12 meters — arguably a contributing cause to the acqua alta of 1966. The MOSE is deepening it to nearly 100 meters. (The same digging was done at the inlet at San Nicolo, which eases the passage of the cruise ships, among other things. Although this pathway isn’t as straight as the Canale dei Petroli, the result of increasing tidal force is the same: A million cubic feet of lagoon bottom is washed out to sea each year through these inlets due to the power of the tide. And, of course, the inrushing tide is equally powerful and rapid now, thus putting the city in greater danger than it was when the shallower bottom slowed the water’s speed). Comparing the murazzi to MOSE is not helpful, in my view, seeing that the murazzi didn’t create any adverse effects on the lagoon, while MOSE does, even when it’s not working. The old Venetians wouldn’t have made this even if they could have. Enrico Dandolo would have consulted his engineers, and then I think they would all have said, “This makes no sense at all.”