Costly Rescue for Merchants of Venice

Vote is expected next month on a $2 billion plan to block rising global sea levels.

It's known as the city "where the streets are paved with water," but a growing flood problem has residents saying basta! - "enough!"

Famed for its scenic canals, bridges, and gondolas, Venice, a port city within a tidal lagoon at the north end of the Adriatic Sea, has had to contend with high waters throughout its 1,500-year history.

But rising sea levels as a result of increasing temperatures - global warming - have experts wondering, "How much is the survival of Venice worth?" Built on the mud banks of the more than 100 small islands that make up the historic city, the beautiful Venetian palazzi and multicolored homes lining the waterways are costly to maintain.

One of the most researched solutions, the construction of mobile barriers at the lagoon's inlets, is currently undergoing environmental impact assessment and a decision is expected by the end of July. But not everyone agrees with the costly project and discussions have been going on for so long the issue has become known as "the lagoon of debates."

"A choice must be made between either abandoning the city to its fate or saving it. It's a decision that must be taken with responsibility," says Roberto Frassetto, chairman of the Italian Committee on Global Change.

Saint Mark's Square, the city's lowest point, is currently flooded 40 to 60 times a year. When sirens warn of a higher than normal tide, shopowners make sure nothing is left on the ground and raised walkways are set up in the city center. It's not uncommon to see restaurant customers perched atop tables to keep from getting their feet wet. "The tourists love it. They have a great time. To them, it means they really are in Venice.... It's locals who complain," says Venice-born Francesca Forni.

The wake-up call for many came in 1966, when the city experienced its worst flooding this century. "It taught us a lot. The whole city has now been made secure as far as telephone, electricity lines, and gas ducts are concerned. Venice will never suffer such a paralyzing effect again," says Gianfranco Dallaporta, the city's chief flood expert.

BUT many complain that not enough has been done. A controversial sea-defense plan has yet to receive final approval. The plan was worked out by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, a government-appointed private sector consortium of building and engineering companies. It involves a system of mobile barriers to be installed at the three inlets to the 90-mile perimeter lagoon, that would temporarily cut it off from the sea during extreme high tides.

"Our solution is the only one compatible with this very special environment," says consortium engineer Maria Teresa Brotto. But criticism of the project's cost and effectiveness has led to delays. Experts estimate it will take $2 billion and eight years to construct.

"I think the floodgates are a complete waste of money," says Edmund Penning-Rowsell, a British expert on flood control based at the University of Middlesex in Britain. "Venice has three main problems: the flooding, the pollution, and the decay of the buildings. All these are related. One needs to tackle the causes of the problems, not the symptoms," he adds. Professor Penning-Rowsell and environmental groups say one of the main causes is an artificial canal built in the 1970s to allow cargo ships and tankers into the port. "It changed the natural structure of the lagoon, which controlled the entrance of the tides," says Fabrizio Fabbri of Greenpeace Italy. And then there is debate over how often the floodgates will be needed. "The problem is, as sea levels rise, they will have to be closed off so often they will be quite ridiculous," says Penning-Rowsell.

The Consorzio Venezia Nuova disagrees. Assuming a sea-level rise of about 8 inches over the next century, its experts calculate the gates would have to be raised 70 times a year. "The closures would be far from permanent and within the limits compatible with maritime traffic. Venice's major economic activities are tourism and the port," says deputy director Maurizio Gentilomo. Closing the city's lagoon off completely is therefore not considered an option.

While the environmental impact assessment of the mobile barrier project continues, its supporters worry new delays may be in store. "We need a Mussolini-style decision for the floodgates to go ahead," says Mr. Frassetto.

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