Drink up (part 1)


And you thought leaks just went drip drip drip. (Photo: La Nuova Venezia)

Saturday morning a week ago I turned on the kitchen tap and water came out as usual except that it was wobbling.  I soon learned that certain stretches of the city — Sant’ Elena, parts of Castello (us), and even parts of Cannaregio and San Marco — were suffering water pressure problems and the fresh water was down to trickles in some houses.

The water company was already on the case, having discovered that at about 8:00 PM on Friday evening, some sort of heavy transport boat had driven blithely over a slightly submerged water main 60 cm (23 inches) in diameter and ripped it open.  The tube is of steel, so I’d say that was quite a little navigation error.  And I say this disaster was created blithely because the tide was low and the tube was in an area clearly marked as being forbidden to navigation.  Conclusion: The rogue boat was taking a short cut (sorry) across an area that shouldn’t ever have been crossed, especially not at low tide.  So the water main was doomed.

Meanwhile, fresh water was surging to the surface of the lagoon on the north side of the Arsenal like a submerged geyser, at the rate of 52 gallons (200 liters) per second. By Sunday the tube had been repaired but 7,132,645 gallons (27 million liters) of fresh water had poured into the lagoon. It must have been a shock to the fish, who may well never have tasted (or breathed, or whatever they do) salt-free water.

The boat hasn’t yet been identified, except that traces of zinc on the steel victim left by the propeller and rudder make it fairly clear which sort of vessel was involved.  If the perpetrator is ever identified, he’s going to have to face accusations not only of breaking the traffic law, and damaging city property, and the environment (I assume), but, just as bad, of not reporting it, which I suppose amounts to leaving the scene of an accident.  Hitting and running is frowned on, even if the victim is a steel pipe.

Perhaps you can make out where the real channel is located (hint: it’s to the left of the pilings, which is why they’re there; the motorboat leaving a foamy wake clearly indicates where boats are supposed to go). The space between the wall and the pilings is totally off limits. Does it seem particularly hard to discern where the channel is? Only about a thousand boats per minute (made up) travel back and forth on it.

The space is rather tight between the wall and the cement pedestal with its two warning signs. Of course, they’re pointing outward, so if you had decided you needed to slink along up next to the wall, you wouldn’t have much indication that it was a bad idea. But why would you be slinking along the wall?  It seems like an inherently bad idea, considering that it is almost guaranteed that the boat wasn’t heading under the arch in the wall and into the Arsenal.  That’s because it’s a military zone and its dwellers don’t look kindly on civilian intruders.

Now that I’ve introduced the subject of water in Venice — I mean in it, not around it — I’ll be dedicating a few upcoming chapters to how Venice managed to survive for 1,000 years without a steel water main, not to mention faucets.  Yet fresh water there was, and the system for providing it was just as amazing as anything else the Venetians have ever done, from building the Doge’s Palace to the invention of italic type.

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Categories : Problems


  1. Rob Cantrill says:

    Ironic that with all the puff about grandi navi it was a piccola nave that did actual harm.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Or as Muhammad Ali, or Anton Chekhov, or somebody, once said, “It’s not the mountain ahead that wears you down, it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.”

  2. oooh, how exciting! (that you’ll be blogging about Venetian little-known histories, not that you and many others were without water…) But… wait.. aren’t there any closed circuit TV cameras to identify the perpetrator of this little lark? (No, I’m not in Venice at the mo’ and I’m sort of too preoccupied with where I am to log on to La Nuova…)

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Don’t know. I’m not seeking answers right now; if they find him, I figure there will be a headline somewhere. Or, you know, not. Like the gondolinos.

  3. Mark says:

    On the eve of Christmas Eve, a water main failed and gushed water into the desert for hours, more horrifying than our home being without water for two days.

    Once, when reading about Frederick Eden’s garden in Giudecca, I was fascinated to read about his water supply. I am eager to see your story about the city supply.

  4. John Flint says:

    I imagine that Donna Leon will already be working up this unfortunate event into her next Brunetti story! What will its title be? I’ll ponder this over the next few days. By the way, are there any Brunettis in the Venice phone directory? And is it like the one in Norfolk Island (Australia), where names are listed by nickname because there are so many people with the same family name?

    Have you been taking energy supplements, Erla? Your output has taken a huge leap recently it seems to me. This is certainly delightful for us all, but don’t wear yourself out, please! There is never a shortage of copy in Venice, I’m sure.

    John Flint

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      There are three Brunettis in the Venice phone book. It is certainly far outnumbered by the Vianellos and Scarpas and Costantinis and Zanes. In the case of the island of Pellestrina there are so many families with the same last name that the mail is delivered with nicknames for clarity. (Not the phone book, however).
      I am trying to make up for the long period of drought, but I can’t promise to maintain this pace for long, and maybe my readers can’t either. Actually, I have had some difficulty in finding things to write about that interest ME. The paper is full of things, as is daily life, but they are not always scribbleworthy. But I’ll try to keep at it!

  5. […] recent break in the water main was only one of many episodes over the centuries which illustrate the particular difficulties […]

  6. Erla, Erla, you MUST make a book, a documentary series, a tour, SOMETHING out of all of this wonderful info you present to your fans and followers! It’s too good! thank you thank you again!