Archive for Venetian Environmental Issues
A few times each year, the subject of motondoso leaps into the headlines. I wrote about some of this phenomenon a good while ago. While I wait for more pressing news to emerge, I will add this post to the general fund of knowledge. Don’t be looking for a happy ending.
- Studies by the Venice Project Center have shown several facts in crisp detail.
- The height of the waves increases exponentially as speed increases. A small barge traveling at 5 km/h would produce a wake about 2 cm high. The same boat going at 10 km/h produces a wake of nearly 15 cm. (Multiply the speed by 2, multiply the wake by 7.)
- Virtually all boats exceed the speed limit. The average speed on all boats in all canals was 12 km/h, which is more than 7 km/h over the maximum speed limit.
- Therefore, reducing the speed of the boats would drastically decrease the size of their wakes.
The area available for waves to dissipate. This is a crucial factor because all these hydrodynamic formulas wouldn’t have to matter except for those pesky canals, whose walls trap the waves.
The waves travel till they hit a wall, then bounce back, then hit the other wall, and this continues till they wear themselves out and disappear. Depending on how much traffic passes in the canal in question, they might disappear sometime around midnight. Typically, enough boats a day(and it doesn’t have to be thousands) pass through so many canals making so many waves that they don’t have time to dissipate, so they just keep going, banging back and forth into each other and into each side of the canal. each time giving just another little hammer-blow to whatever building they reach. That probably didn’t need to be explained. The depth of the water also influences the waves in certain ways, but of course the depth varies according to the tide, so let’s move on.
Building foundations. This is obvious. Some Venetians have told me that they believe nothing will be done to resolve this situation till an entire building collapses. Stay tuned.
- The lagoon, more specifically the barene and everything that depends on them. I will say more on this on my page about the lagoon, but briefly, the barene (bah-RAY-neh) are the marshy, squidgy islets strewn about the lagoon.
They form 20 percent of the lagoon area, and their benefit is to the entire lagoon ecosystem: microorganisms, plants, animals, birds, fish. For millennia they also slowed down the speed and force of the tide, but as the waves continue to obliterate them (50 percent of the barene have been lopped away by waves in 60 years), their benefits are denied to everyone. So it’s not only the foundations of buildings which are under attack, so are the foundations of the lagoon.
People. Waves are a hazard to ordinary people in several ways. The most obvious is the risk of capsizing. Even on land, you can’t be sure you’re safe. The insidious subterranean erosion caused by the waves continually sucking soil out from under pavements means that sometimes a person suddenly falls into a hole. It happened to a woman walking along near the Giardini one day — she put her foot on a stone, it collapsed, she fell into a hole higher than she was. Nobody in the neighborhood was surprised; they’d been sending complaints to the city to no avail. Then there was the child playing on a stretch of greensward at Sacca Fisola facing the Giudecca Canal who suddenly fell into an unsuspected weak spot in the ground. If a man with quick reflexes hadn’t grabbed him, the child would have long since gone out to sea.
The Venetians have a saying: “Water has no bones.” This means that water can go anywhere it wants to. They should know — Venice has a long history of brilliant hydraulic engineering, up to and including cutting the river Po to re-route it southward, thus preventing the eventual silting-up of the lagoon. If they hadn’t done this in 1604, Venice would have long since been surrounded by cornfields. Or more probably by the world’s biggest parking lot. This knowledge and sense of self-preservation now exists only in a vastly sub-divided and disconnected form which only serves one tiny, specific purpose, usually unrelated to any larger context.
Division of jurisdiction. The term “battle against motondoso” is now a cliche. But exactly who is conducting this battle? By now there is “an exuberance,” as the Italians might put it, of agencies and organizations involved in some way in managing the lagoon. The Magistrato alle Acque was established in 1501 to resolve administrative conflicts and simplify redundancies. Now it’s just one more in the herd. The lagoon is divided into areas overseen by agencies representing a large array of sometimes incompatible interests, charged with enforcing laws which sometimes contradict each other. The waters lapping at Venice’s feet are subdivided according to their primary use: shipping channels, small internal canals, approaches, which are variously overseen by the Capitaneria di Porto, the Magistrato alle Acque, the city of Venice and/or the province of Venice. Parts of the lagoon have been designated as Special Protection Areas (SPA) under the European Habitats Directive, but they exclude the central part of the lagoon, the major shipping lanes, and the shoreline Industrial Area — just the places where motondoso is most likely to be found.
Everybody with a boat. Over time, the voices blaming everyone else blend like an entire city singing “Three Blind Mice.” (I would say “Row, row, row your boat,” but that would be silly.) The vaporetto drivers say it’s the barges. The barge drivers say it’s the taxis. The taxi drivers say it’s the private boats. The private boats say it’s everybody but them. And so it goes. I’m not sure what the legal value is of a defense strategy formed around “I did it, but he did it worse.” But whoever is in a motorboat for work reasons considers himself to have a free pass. And whoever is in a motorboat for fun automatically counts himself out because he’s not there every day, so how could he count as a culprit?
Studies by the Venice Project Center have revealed that the highest wakes are produced by the small barges (“topo-motore“). Next were the taxis. Vaporettos produced the least, but that doesn’t let them off the hook entirely, for two reasons. One, “least” doesn’t mean they produce no wake, so I don’t regard “least” as any kind of gold star. Second, instead of bigger waves they produce something which none of the other motorboats do, which is a powerful whirlpool.
Every time a vaporetto ties up to the dock to let passengers on and off, the motor stays in full-steam-ahead mode. The reason given is that it makes the boat more secure for the passengers in transit. I won’t contest that here, but will say that the vortex creates a kind of suction effect (think of rinsing out your mouth) which is also damaging to the nearby foundations.
What to do? Stricter enforcement of speed limits. It’s the most obvious solution, even to Venetians. Generally speaking, the limit in the small inner canals is 5 km/h, in the Grand Canal and some larger canals it’s 7 km/h, and in some others (such as the Canale di Tessera leading to the airport) it’s 11 km/h. But, as noted earlier, these are just numbers on a page. Many and varied have been the proposals, most of which have some merit but which frequently suffer from the fatal flaw of being unenforceable. Shortage of personnel, inter-bureau jealousies, and lack of consistency and simple lack of will on the part of everyone has shown this solution to be impossible. I don’t mean literally impossible, I just mean impossible here. Require hulls and horsepower to be changed to the minimum-wave-producing conformation. Nobody wants to pay to get a new boat with a less wave-inducing hull, though it occurs to me that now would be a brilliant moment to launch a “Cash for Clunkers” program for commercial boats. If cost is the only thing holding people back (it isn’t) this would be an intelligent place to start. If it’s not cost, what is it? Civic pride isn’t even mentioned as an incentive.
It’s Sloth. “We’ve always done it this way.” “It’s too much trouble.” “Why me?” How to overcome that? You can’t. It’s as difficult to convince workers-with-boats as it is poachers that they are gradually killing their source of livelihood. You can only create a new situation and then enforce it till it becomes habit. I have several solutions in mind, each of which would have an appreciable, even dramatic, effect on motondoso. The costs involved are all to be considered as investments in the future not only of the person using the boat, but of the city itself.
- Redesign the vaporettos. Actually, this was on the way to being done, then the project slowly sank from sight and history into the swamp that is the political biosphere here. You should have a look at the Mangia Onda (wave-eater) hull design, and the prototype airport launch. The prototype had the advantage of being paid for by its inventor, which got it very far down the road. That was in 2001. The documents must be in a drawer somewhere. Or as one site sums up: “Don’t even ask what happened.”
- While that is going on, reconfigure the timetables to impose slower — much, much slower — speed limits on everybody. I don’t know why this seems to be such a difficult idea; evidently the mania for speed has blinded everyone to the fact that these changes would only involve five or fifteen — let’s say twenty, hey — minutes more for each run. Passengers, be they residents or tourists, can’t plan for an extra twenty minutes in transit? Why? They do it on an unplanned basis on the mainland all the time — all it takes is an accident somewhere and traffic backs up forever. Why do water-buses have to go faster? To carry more people?
- There are already so many vaporettos in operation that, especially in the Grand Canal, they have to just float there in neutral, waiting their turn to tie up at the dock while the previous boat finishes and casts off. If we were to see buses on the mainland pulling over to wait until their stop became available on a regular basis, we’d think it was kind of nutty. Same for boats. It’s a sign of unintelligent management.
- Install permanent cofferdams to protect anything a wave can reach. This would be most of the city and its canals. Not pretty, perhaps, for tourists who like to think the city is still living in the 15th century, but then again, the same tourists use vaporettos, taxis, launches, and other motorized boats and don’t seem to find it aesthetically jarring. This approach has always been used in the short-term to make it possible to repair ravaged structures; 50 years ago, squads of men beat a row of tightly connected wooden pilings into the sediment, and blocked it with dense lagoon mud to keep out the canal’s water. Today, there are always places in the city where you can see iron cofferdams serving the same purpose. I’d say if you’ve got them, just leave them there. And add them to the rest of the city’s edges.
- Change human nature. (I’ll get right on that.) Or how about changing the political landscape? Not much easier. But the city government has a view of its purpose in life whose range is far, far too short. Grandiose goals, certainly, but they’re sliced and diced, doled out here and there, or left to rot. The political philosophy here appears to qualify as what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive tolerance.” A good example is when your father says, “Yes, you can have it, but not today.” You don’t say no, but it never happens anyway. The city government has become expert at this maneuver.
If I were in charge, I would add the following to all of the above:
- Require completely new hull forms for each category of boat (for instance, returning the taxi to its primordial motorized shape, with the motor in the center of the boat rather than the stern, which creates much more wake).
- Most, if not all, of these hulls would be of the “wave-eating” form, a heretofore experimental design invented in 1998 by Americans Bill Burns and Charles Robinson . Its few demonstration runs have shown it to be effective but nobody has studied the effect of large numbers of them. Still, it’s a dramatic start. There is a saga behind all this, too, because in 2001 the company announced that one of these boats would be in service by the end of that year. As another web-site devoted to this project put it, “As for what happened, don’t even ask.”
I would also stipulate a limit on the horsepower of each category, including pleasure boats. Since people can’t retain the concept of slowing down on their own, I suggest requiring their equipment do it for them. As for those who might protest, I would have a one-size-fits-all response: Do it or seek employment elsewhere. The world must be full of people who would be happy to work for even one quarter of what your average taxi driver (I refer to the legal ones, not the fleet of illegal ones) makes in a year. Or even what they make in a month. If this notion for some reason is deemed unfeasible (I can’t see why), I would suggest immediately hiring a large quantity of extra police solely to enforce speed limits, imposing fines so steep that a quick calculation on the back of an envelope would show that it made more sense to buy a new, non-wave-making boat right now than pay two fines. The vital element here is that a person has to be at least 99 percent convinced that he will be caught and fined, a certainty which can’t exist today when the forces of public order have been reduced to skeleton crews who mainly race around solving emergencies.
The councilor for Tourism and Decorum, Augusto Salvadori, made a proposal some while back (I think he even may have made it twice): Engage squads of volunteers from the ranks of the rowing clubs, whose job would be to row around and blow whistles at whatever transgressors they encounter. This might possibly work (I’m being generous here) if there were enough people, if there were immediate and drastic follow-up, and if the transgressors weren’t inclined to run you over. My sense is that none of these conditions apply. Well, there’s prayer. They’ve tried that too. A few years ago there was a big initiative to amass members of all of the rowing clubs at the church of the Madonna della Salute (Our Lady of Health) on November 21, her feast-day. Considering that she saved Venice in 1630 from the catastrophic plague which was destroying the city, there was some poetic power in the notion of everyone going to her church and offering a candle in supplication for salvation from this latest plague. Grand symbolic gestures are so much fun; they make everybody feel so good. Reminds you of why Italian opera is so impressive. Then it’s over, and everybody goes home. And tomorrow begins just like it did yesterday, and nothing has changed.
I promise that I will not transform this blog into the daily bulletin from the MOSE hecatomb.
But two days ago (June 14), at the last meeting of the council of ministers, the government did something so extreme — and indisputably necessary and long overdue — that I want at least to make it known.
They abolished the Magistrato alle Acque. An entire government agency with 500 years of history is no more. Yesterday it was, today it is not.
Beginning in October, its responsibilities will be “absorbed” by the Inter-regional Director of Public Works of the three contiguous regions of the Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Trentino Alto Adige.
Of course this is good, but I feel sick at heart. Not only because of the annihilation of one of the last tiny links to the Venetian Republic, but because a gesture of this magnitude shows all too vividly the extent of the rot.
People who occasionally had to request a permit for temporary use of a certain stretch of lagoon have long been aware that the Magistrato was as swampy as Reelfoot Lake. It wouldn’t have been the first city agency whose functionaries accepted the occasional guerdon for speeding up the processing of requests. I’m not saying the employees of the Magistracy did such a thing. I’m just saying that if they did, they wouldn’t have been alone.
The Magistracy of the Waters was established in 1501; it was specifically charged with overseeing the health and security of the lagoon, and any action required — digging, land reclamation, maintenance — had to have its approval.
Care of the lagoon required care of its tributary rivers, too. Venetian engineers diverted the Po River, for God’s sake; between 1600 and 1604, innumerable men with shovels and wheelbarrows cut Italy’s greatest river at Porto Viro and turned it southward. There were many reasons for this, some of them political, some economic, but it was also time to limit the amount of sediment that was filling up the lagoon. The Venetian Republic knew that the care of the lagoon was its primary life insurance.
“Lagoon” (laguna) is a Venetian word, by the way.
But the Magistrato was populated by many individuals who were not all of the same stripe, and in 1678, human nature having demonstrated its impressive dimensions, the Venetian Senate created a group of inquisitors to conduct the legal cases against those accused of having damaged the lagoon. There must be some diabolical hothouse somewhere that causes little tiny crook seedlings to sprout, then sells them to the Magistrato alle Acque where, in its own special microclimate, they can flourish and grow to be big tall leafy crooks.
In fact, I now learn that this is the third time that the Magistrato has been “suppressed,” as the headlines put it, though it’s the first occasion where the reason was crime.
In 1808, during the brief but eventful French domination of the city (1806-1814), the Viceroy Eugene Beauharnais put an end to it, for reasons I haven’t yet discovered. It didn’t take long for it to become evident that this was an error, the neglect having contributed to an assortment of watery damage. When the Austrians took over for the first time (1816-1848), they quickly re-established the Magistrato, reorganized it, renamed some departments, applied a coat of varnish and it was good to go again.
In 1866, when Venice and the Veneto became part of the new nation of Italy, the Magistrato was annulled again, and again a series of hydraulic disasters showed what serious consequences could come from indifference to the state of the waterways.
The Magistrato was reformulated for the third time in 1907 as part of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, and its authority expanded to cover the entire hydrological basin of northeast Italy — an enormous watershed of rivers, lakes, and other lagoons stretching from Mantova to Trieste. Total area of its authority was some 40,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles). So when we talk about the misfeasance of the Magistrato, we’re not talking about some little local entity that turned out to have just a few bad apples.
I very sincerely hope that Cuccioletta and Piva, in their respective cells awaiting trial, are happy. Because I’m not, and neither are a whole bunch of other people.
On June 4, the dam broke.
I don’t mean the ingeniously devised dam (a/k/a “MOSE”) still under construction, which is formed by mobile barriers intended to block high water from entering Venice for a few hours every so often. I mean the dam that was the financing of the project.
No one is really surprised. Any public work budgeted at 5 billion euros (6.5 billion dollars) is a monumental petri dish for cultivating corruption. But what has stunned just about everybody is the sheer scope of it all. I’ve heard some people say they don’t believe it will ever become completely untangled — names which were given code numbers, foreign accounts, fake receipts, fake financial reports, fake banks, even. All of this created and maintained by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the consortium which had sole power over the administration of the work, the awarding of contracts, and every detail of who and what was involved in the project. Taken altogether, some estimate that the Consorzio paid out 1 billion euros in gifts, favors and graft.
The Northeast, especially members of the Northern League, has spent years sneering at the waste and crime south of Rome, past Naples, deep into the heart of Sicily. The North wanted to secede from the feckless, blood-sucking South. Marches and vigils were held in the “fight against the mafia.”
But no more is the voice of the sneer heard in the land, at least not in the Veneto.
News of the arrest of the mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, sped around the world, though he is just one tiny (sorry, Giorgio, but you are, in fact, very tiny) piece of the story. To spend even five seconds thinking about Orsoni is like thinking about a broken fingernail when you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer.
Orsoni resigned today, after house arrest, liberation, then plea-bargaining which got him a trifling four-month sentence. To reach this point, we had to endure the usual tedious pantomime.
Day 1: “I didn’t take even one euro.”
Day 2: “I took money but it was for my political party.”
Day 3: “I took money.” How much? 560,000 even-one-euros. Rabbit pellets! Emilio Spaziante, the number-two general of the entire Guardia di Finanza (what I call the Finance Police), was given 2,500,000 euros by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova. Vulture chow! Giancarlo Galan, the former governor of the Veneto Region, got 1,000,000 euros per year for seven years (2005 – 2011).
Back to Orsoni.
Day 4: “I’m not resigning.”
And on Day 5, “I have tendered my resignation.” Orsoni said he is bitter, disillusioned, and is going to leave the perfidious world of politics. He might as well; he already opened the Emergency Exit door himself.
Malfeasance of these dimensions requires a book, not a blog post. A mere book? “Give me a condor’s quill!” Herman Melville cried, staggering at the prospect of describing the white whale; “Give me Vesuvius’ crater as an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms!”
Being a mere mortal, I can only outline a few details here, each of which is plenty.
After five years of unflagging labor, 300 officers of the Guardia di Finanza had assembled enough evidence to validate — nay, require — the arrest of as many as 100 people on charges of corruption, bribes, kickbacks, fraud, influence-peddling, and every form of villainy in which money can play even so much as a walk-on role. The complexity and the dimensions of this titanic construction of crime, begun in the early Nineties, has overwhelmed this project, overwhelmed even its perpetrators.
The edifice began to crumble with the unexpected retirement, on June 28, 2013, of Giovanni Mazzacurati, who spent 30 years at the apex of the Consorzio, first as director general, then as president. He cited reasons of health. He got a 7 million dollar departure bonus. And on July 12, he was arrested for turbativa d’asta, or bid rigging.
At that point, even I knew what would come next: He wasn’t going to go down alone.
A straggling procession of degraded characters marches across the newspaper every day now, carrying the equally monotonous quantities of money — public money dedicated to the project, not private money — which they so eagerly accepted in so many forms, right down to the classic white envelope stuffed with cash.
A judge from the Court of Audit. Members of parliament. Members of the European parliament. Directors of the Magistrato alle Acque, the agency established in 1501 to safeguard the lagoon (Maria Giovanna Piva, director from 2001-2008 and Patrizio Cuccioletta, director from 2008-2011, received 400,000 euros a year to ignore what was being done in the lagoon). Eleven years of good times rolling everywhere in the world of the famous floodgates.
In its report, which runs for many hundreds of pages, the Procura — an official government watchdog entity — said that there was “total confusion in the roles of the controllers and the controlled. No obstacle, no vigilance, no important remark was made by the Magistrato alle Acque under Piva and Cuccioletta.”
Everyone knew something very fishy was up. But the haul has been beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine.
“Corruption” is such a compact word that we tend to lose track of its essential meaning. “Moral perversion; depravity; perversion of integrity; decay: rot; putrefaction.”
MOSE was supposed to save Venice. But nobody could save Venice from MOSE.
I suddenly realized that when I was proposing the going-away party for the boy — clothes, but possibly also food, because he must be really hungry by now — I didn’t mention the frog.
That was an oversight. So here’s the plan.
First, the frog would be freed.
Second, he would be given a large pile of small- and medium-sized rocks to throw at the boy.
Third, he would be given a hundred things his heart might desire, from the unlisted phone numbers of Charles Ray (sculptor) and Francois Pinault (collector), to his own private estate with tennis court and helipad in the Great Moss Swamp, to a date with every winner of the Miss Humanity of the Netherlands pageant. And a huge party at the Waldorf-Astoria for freed dolphins, liberated dancing bears, wounded hedgehogs, rehabilitated slow lorises, and birds whose owners accidentally left their cages open. He’ll also have his own smorgasbord with all the beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, and Purina Frog Chow he’ll ever want. And a trampoline. And a pony.
While we’re on the subject of animals, here’s something you might find interesting. More than 240 species of birds spend at least some, if not all, of their time in the Venetian lagoon and immediate vicinity.
An article in the Gazzettino announced this fact along with the notice of the publication of a new atlas of birds, the result of five years of data-gathering. For the record, the title is “Uccelli di laguna e di citta’ – L’atlante ornitologico del comune di Venezia 2006-2011,” written by Mauro Bon and Emanuele Stival, ornithologists of the Museum of Natural History, published by Marsilio.
Of these birds, 142 species come only for the winter, 115 come to nest, and about 60 are migrating. If you stop and read that over again, I think you’ll be respectfully amazed. In fact, the lagoon is at a crucial point on a major north-south flyway, and is one of the largest lagoons left in Europe. It’s far from being just scenery.
Even though I’ve never seen them, I now have learned that there is a Hungarian royal seagull which arrives in the fall, and spends the winter in the Giardini Reali between the Piazza San Marco and the lagoon. And there is an extremely rare black-legged kittiwake that comes from England.
I was already interested in birds because rowing around the lagoon at all hours and in all seasons means that you see plenty of them. For one thing, they’re everywhere. For another, they’re generally easier to see than fish.
Some of the birds I’ve come to recognize are as much as part of Venice as canals and tourists. The svasso (grebe) and tuffetto (little grebe), only appear in the winter. The cormorants, mallards, seagulls, egrets and herons are here all year. I’ve already gone on too long about my passion for blackbirds (a few months per year), and I’ve never bothered to mention pigeons because there’s nothing worth saying about them. They are the roaches of the avian world; they’ll be here pecking around and crooning after the last nuclear device explodes. I am prepared for hostile letters from pigeon-feeders.
There is one kingfisher who I watch for as we row behind the Vignole; all you can see is a flash of iridescent blue-green flitting through the trees and over the water. I wish he’d hold still somewhere just for a minute, but he’s not interested in being admired.
In the plush summer nights we almost always hear a solitary owl called a soleta (civetta in Italian), somewhere high in the trees in the Public Gardens. He or she makes a soft one-tone hoot, repeated pensively at perfectly regular intervals. It’s like a metronome, far away. It goes on for hours. It’s very comforting.
For two days not long ago we were startled to see a fluffy young gull we’d never seen before, standing on the fondamenta gazing out at the lagoon. Determined research revealed that it is a Little Gull. We haven’t seen it since.
And one magical winter day a trio of swans flew over us. You hardly ever see the wild swans, but here were three, flying so low that I could see their long necks undulating slightly and hear a curious murmur from their throats.
Many of these birds depend on organisms and elements in the lagoon wetlands which exist because of, or are replenished by, acqua alta. If so many people who never leave the city didn’t get so worked up about having to put on boots, the water could continue to provide for lots of creatures who like being here too. Maybe your tourist or trinket-seller doesn’t care about the birds, but the birds probably don’t care about the Doge’s Palace and Harry’s Bar. Just saying.