By Tristan Baurick, Times-Picayune | The Advocate
NOORDWAARD, The Netherlands — Vic Gremmer walked through an invisible garden and reached for a doorknob that wasn’t there.
“Here was the opening of the front door,” he said, holding out his hand in a marshy landscape of reeds and willows near a river about 10 miles from Rotterdam. “Here was my home. Over there, the road. But all of it is changed.”
Gremmer’s neighborhood and his little brick farmhouse, where he raised his kids and planned to retire, were erased by a government program that has been buying and bulldozing homes at several locations in the Netherlands.
They aren’t making room for highways or bigger buildings.
“What we are doing is making more space for rivers,” said Hans Brouwer, who works for the Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch equivalent of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Rather than keep building bigger levees, the Dutch decided to make several strategic retreats. At more than 30 locations around the country, a program known as Room for the River has removed human-built barriers and reshaped landscapes to give rivers more space to spread out safely when they’re running high.
About 20% of the program’s $2.6 billion budget went toward buying out and relocating 200 households in high-risk areas.
Ways of living with flooding are gaining traction in the U.S. as well. Illinois, in particular, has drawn praise for what flood risk experts call “managed retreat” from the Mississippi River. The state has aggressive buyout and relocation programs, and has enacted some of the nation’s toughest restrictions on development in flood plains.
Louisiana has been slower to embrace these concepts, but it still faces the same challenges. Climate change has contributed to a 20% increase in annual rainfall in the upper Mississippi basin over the past century. That’s led to more frequent and longer high-water periods in the lower river.
The potential for disaster loomed large in August, when a hurricane threatened to push water from the Gulf of Mexico into the already swollen Mississippi, sparking fears that the levees in New Orleans could be overtopped.
Tamers of rivers
The Dutch have long been the proud tamers of rivers, building vast networks of levees that kept the rising waters separated from farms and cities. Their levees have shaped and defined their entire nation. But now they see mistakes where they once saw feats of engineering.
“We fought for many centuries against nature,” Brouwer said. “You can fight, but you can never win. So, we try to find ways to cooperate with nature by understanding how rivers work … and give them some space back.”
Thanks to climate change, many Dutch rivers are running higher, increasing the strain on levee systems, many of which are now considered outdated and inadequate. That was made clear in the early 1990s, when high water forced the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from South Holland. Had the winds been a little stronger, the levees would have been overtopped, Gremmer said.
Gremmer’s home was one of 50 that were demolished and removed from the Noordwaard, an ancient flood plain on the Nieuwe Merwede River that had been walled off by levees and converted to farmland centuries ago. Noordwaard is caught in the middle of two flood threats: surging rivers, which flow from the east, and the surging sea, which pushes into the rivers from the west during storms.
The Dutch government offered the market price for each property and assistance in finding a new home. Negotiations sometimes took years, but the end result was never in question.
“If the government says it needs your land, you will move aside,” said Piet Dircke, a water management consultant who helped with the Noordwaard project. “In the end, the Dutch government wins.”
After agreeing to a buyout, Gremmer ended up building a slightly larger house on higher ground nearby. He has views of the same stream and he got to keep his little dock where he ties up an old wooden boat. He hunts and fishes the same area, a maze of marshes and reed-lined channels that bears a striking resemblance to the bayous of south Louisiana.
Giving up his house wasn’t easy. At first, he wanted to stay and keep fighting the water. “But what are the consequences?” he said. Staying put posed risks for his home and his family’s safety. And there were consequences for people downstream.
The levees that protected his home pushed his flood problems to nearby cities that couldn't be relocated as easily. Nearly 60% of the homes in the Netherlands are in flood-prone areas, often inside a polder, a Dutch term for a low-lying piece of land reclaimed from the sea or a river and surrounded by levees. Polders are essentially big bowls filled with farms, homes or cities.
Gremmer’s polder was dramatically de-poldered. Along with the demolition of homes, levees were removed or relocated. A new levee was built farther from the river. A stand of willows was planted outside it to block waves, making it possible to build the levee lower than usual. About 17 square miles of land was largely given up and handed back to the river.
All told, the Noordwaard project cost $86 million.
It was money well spent, said Brouwer. The project reduced water levels by several inches at the nearby city of Werkendam and by a foot at the city of Gorinchem, about 5 miles upstream. More than 60,000 people now have much lower flood risk.
Many farms and pastures remain in the Noordwaard, but now they’re designed for occasional flooding. The farmers’ homes have been rebuilt on mounds a few feet higher than the rest of the landscape.
The project included new roads at higher elevations, 33 new bridges for easier evacuations and 15 new pumping stations.
One of the stations doubles as a wildlife-watching tower. Its roof offers a panoramic view of a landscape in transition. Former croplands are now covered in shallow water teeming with swans, geese and ducks. A wide pasture, once kept trim by grazing cows, has grown shaggy with cattails and tufts of marsh grass.
“You can see that nature has acted very quickly,” Brouwer said. “Immediately, a lot of birds came, even some we thought were quite endangered. The sea eagle and the osprey hadn’t been seen here, and now they’ve decided to breed here.”
Saving a city
What worked in the rural landscape of Noordwaard was of little help in Nijmegen, the Netherlands’ oldest city.
Founded by the Romans during the 1st century B.C., Nijmegen developed into a major port along the Waal, an offshoot of the Rhine. Germany’s border is just 7 miles upstream. Nijmegen’s location is ideal for trade but not so ideal for staying dry.
“Here, it’s like a bottleneck, and that, together with the river going at almost a 90-degree angle, makes a lot of pressure,” Andrea Voskens, a project manager for the city, said while walking along the riverbank near downtown. At the city’s point of greatest density, where centuries-old buildings appear stacked to be on top of one another, the river turns sharply and narrows to a quarter of its usual width.
Extreme flooding in 1993 and 1995 and the evacuation of 250,000 people made it clear that the Waal would eventually push its way into the city. Nijmegen, the federal government decided, would be its biggest and most challenging Room for the River experiment.
Locals wanted more than an open flood plain. The project, they believed, should serve the dual purposes of revitalizing the city core and adding new outdoor recreation spaces, natural areas and a riverfront promenade for festivals and walking.
Planners knew little could be done to Nijmegen itself. Crowded development along the river left no space to bulk up levees and floodwalls. Relieving the Waal’s pressure would have to fall to the smaller town of Lent on the other side of the river.
It took years to negotiate an acceptable plan with Lent’s residents. In the end, the government bought and demolished 50 homes and essentially made the riverfront across from Nijmegen a clean slate. The rounded tip of Lent’s levee, which jutted southward toward Nijmegen, was ripped out and rebuilt about a quarter-mile farther inland.
The river now had a much wider flood plain, but the project went a step further, digging a second river channel where the old levee had been. About 2 miles long, the channel helps store water when the river is high.
Not just flood control
Voskens credits the project’s urban amenities as the key to winning over locals. The city delivered on its promises, covering much of the 618-acre project area with bike and walking paths, plazas and green spaces.
The new channel, protected from river currents by a small dam, is popular with swimmers and boaters. It has sparked a bit of a boom in rowing, which requires long stretches of placid water.
One of the project’s oddest features is packs of cows roving along the natural spaces created along the Waal’s banks.
“They choose their own way,” Voskens said. “They are very strong-headed.”
Allowing the cows to graze is a perk for local farmers and helps keep the brush down, she said.
The project has become an attraction for locals and visitors. During construction, the city estimated about 30,000 out-of-towners came for a look.
“Managing the cars is now a major issue because everyone wants to see it,” said Dircke, the water management consultant.
On a riverfront path, Voskens passed a tour group of university students from Spain, Italy and Iceland. Foreign interest in adapting the principles of Room for the River is high, she said.
People also want to live near the reimagined waterfront. Housing construction is booming in Lent and appears on track with city plans to nearly double the town’s population.
Nearly all the project’s open spaces are designed to flood during high water, putting the river over parks and plazas rather than the narrow streets of Nijmegen.
The project has exceeded its flood management goals. During its first year, it achieved a nearly 14-inch reduction in water level, beating the 11-inch target.
Lower river levels were even noticed 13 miles upstream in Duisburg, Germany.
In 2018, floodwater from the Rhine overwhelmed the Waal. Nearby German towns, ones with sturdy, top-of-the-line levees, flooded. Nijmegen stayed dry.
“Strengthening the (levees) or making them higher — there’s no end to that story,” Voskens said. “We have to find another solution. You have to find ways of living with more water.”
WWNO New Orleans Public Radio reporter Tegan Wendland contributed to this story. It is part of the Pulitzer Center's nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative. For more information, go to pulitzercenter.org/connected-coastlines.