Water? Oh, that again.By
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 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.