Water works

The Dutch realized they couldn’t beat the floods. So they made room for them

For centuries, the Netherlands built walls to keep the water out. With the 2.3 billion Room for the River program, this European country--where 26 percent of the land sits below sea level--is now letting the water in. This article examines the Room for the River program, which comprises more than 30 projects, most of which will be complete by 2015, that range from pushing back dikes to lowering floodplains to deepening riverbeds. It begins by detailing a project that takes place in the city of Nijmegen, where a US$470 million project will move back dikes and dig a new 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) side channel that will create an urban island. It explains how a hydraulic model assessed how the measures would mitigate floods and examines how the project team prepared for major risks with ecology and soil-quality data, early organization of the permits needed to purchase the required land, and feasibility studies. Then the article summarizes the five-year exploration plan and the 10-plus years of planning and execution. It also describes the "soldier handbook," which aimed to keep each project on budget and on schedule, and explains how the handbook transitioned the project from abstract to concrete. It also describes the engineering challenges as well as a human challenge: People lived on the lands that the program needed. It then details how the project teams addressed the relocation of the people affected by the project. The article also summarizes the first project, which broke ground in 2010 on the Overdiepse Polder, which converted farmland into a river spillway for occasional floods. It discusses how the project team handled budget concerns, noting how the team guarded against budget overruns with the implementation of careful cost estimation. It concludes by exploring how the project benefitted from the Eurozone debt crisis, identifying how contractors were motivated to lower their bids to beat out their competition. Accompanying the article is a sidebar listing the types of projects found in the Room for the River program.
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