Field Trip: throwing Caution to the Wind

From inside a windmill at the Kinderdijk. Image: Jessica Ludy

Part I.

Leven  met water. Over the last few months living in the low lands, it has become apparent that Dutch success in “reclaiming” their country from the sea and rivers was made possible because of their first hand experience with and developed understanding of the elements. For more than 1000 years, the Dutch have lived on coast, below the sea, and dwelled on mounds. They have drained, flooded, rebuilt, elevated, or pumped nearly every square meter of land, and this is why we hear that the Netherlands Lives with water.

Last Saturday, I got to see a small piece of history–how the Dutch first harnessed the wind to aid in this feat (dry feet, if you will) by using windmolens to drain a catch basin at the Kinderdijk. From extended conversations with the employees, I couldn’t help but notice how the windmill operators are/were so in touch with the landscape (much as sailors, farmers, and fishermen are), and how this enabled them to successfully prevent, react, or interact (adapt) to seemingly all circumstances.

While at the site, I also began to think about how our perceptions of landscape, water, and risk have changed over time.  In the context of today, we have inherited a legacy of living on floodplain and below the sea–most unaware what the land used to be and unprepared for the power of water. We’ve deferred to governments to make decisions about our well-being for us and as such, do not take our own precautionary actions  (most of the time).  In the face of rising seas and subsiding lands, do we have enough experience to call upon, accept, and minimize future risks ourselves?

In light of pondering heavy questions, here is a bit about the Kinderdijk.

Part II.

Windmills drained the polders. The Kinderdijk is has the highest remaining concentration of the NL. 18. Most others have been removed. (Image: Jessica Ludy)

The picturesque Windmill-dominated landscape lies in a polder at the confluence of the Lek and Noord Rivers. Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, the Kinderdijk contains the largest concentration of working windmills in the country.  The region used to hold 272 of them but over the years, they became obsolete and were torn down– 18 remain today.  Though windmills serve many functions, the purpose of these particular windmills is to maintain dry-feet for sheep, farmers, and land.

In Dutch, “kinderdijk” translates literally to “Child’s dike” and refers to the legend of how the region got its name. “Windmolen” means windmill.

How they work:

image taken from “Designed for Dry Feet” (Hoeksema 2006)

As it rains in the basin at 2.5 meters below sea-level, Cornelius (the operator) told me how mills pump the water from the polder ditch up into a canal (lower basin) in order to keep the polder dry.

As the canal fills, the mills then pump water from the canal further up into a holding lake (intermediate basin).

Cornelius walks me to the back of the windmill where it discharges water into the intermediate basin. Image: Jessica Ludy

close up of water discharge into intermediate basin. Image: Jessica Ludy

Ultimately water is then pumped again uphill from the holding lake and released into the River Lek (ring canal) where it eventually flows to the sea.

If water levels in the Lek River are too high, water will be stored in the intermediate basin until levels in the river are low enough to discharge the water. To prevent overflow in the intermediate basin in the meanwhile, windmill operators must signal to the others down in the polder to stop pumping until those at the “top of the chain” are able to begin pumping again.

Cornelius explained that signaling others to cease pumping during the daytime meant a mill operator would simply stop his mill.  To tell others at night, an operator would stop his mill and hoist an oil lamp to the top of it so it was visible.  Other mill operators would subsequently do the same.

Leven met water, wind, en landschap. 

The windmill operators seemed always to be in tune with the weather, and  canals were a way of life. Cornelius told us that operators historically used the canals for everything including drinking, drainage, fishing for eel. They used the landscape for sheep grazing and farming. They repaired the fishing nets while awake late at night waiting for the wind.

The tops of the mills have ball-bearings so the operator can immediately rotate the mill (see yellow ring around top in photo) to always face the direction of the wind.  If it were not very windy, the operator could open the sails on the mill to help it spin.

Sails partially opened on the mill to help it spin. Image: Jessica Ludy

Not surprisingly, wind was necessary to pump water. Thus, if there were a rainy but non-windy day, a polder would have flooded because nothing could pump it out. An operator would need to stay on alert so that if in the middle of the night the wind finally picked up again, he would immediately  re-position the mill to face the wind and commence pumping again through the night.

Today the Kinderdijk exists only for cultural preservation. The mills work (as in, they spin), and people still live in 18 of them, but they don’t function to drain the polder anymore.  This job was outsourced to a steam-powered pump in the late 1800’s shown here.

 (video credit to my friend Almar)In California we have such a system to pump out polders (or “tracts”as we call them in the California Delta) in the case of heavy rain, dike breaches, or seepage (piping). These pumps are also powered by steam engines or generators, and some polders face such strong seepage (piping) problems that the pumps  operate 24 hours a day to keep them dry.

Pumps discharging water from Bishop Tract (RD 2042) into Bear Creek near Stockton, California. Image: Jessica Ludy

Part III. 

Have we moved away from the Pioneer Spirit?

Today the Dutch are famous for their Water Management Expertise as a top sector export in their economy, and they have developed highly sophisticated models, technologies, and forecasting tools help sustain their way of life. Thus, they are rarely “surprised” by the sea, the river, or a storm and they repeatedly respond well in emergencies without catastrophic damage.

But what about for the non-experts? 

I have heard colleagues here argue that the average Nederlander today no longer “lives with water” because they have engineered themselves completely away from it. The former head of Emergency Services in San Joaquin County used to speak similarly of  residents in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and their perception of flood risks; he referred often to the “pioneer spirit” of the first settlers in the (California) Delta who experienced regular flooding, understood the risk, willingly accepted it, and consciously decided how to live with it.

Now, he says, “that spirit is gone.”   Studies in both the Netherlands and the United States showed that the dry-footed residents don’t have experience with floods, are no longer aware of flood risk, and they are unprepared for them.

All over the world, steam powered pumps replaced windmills, KNMI forecasting replaces reading the horizon (or other weather-related signals once intuitive to those working with water), and dikes and seawalls now “protect” suburban developments, industrial areas, or farms that used to be floodplain. The benefits of all of this cannot be ignored, but neither can the risks.

Fortunately the landscape at the Kinderdijk has been preserved by UNESCO and along with it, some of the local knowledge now inherent in Cornelius and the hundreds of other windmill operators that came before him.  Experience means that some can throw their caution to the wind and probably come out okay on the other side.

For the rest of us though, that remains to be seen– never having experienced floods but living still on floodprone lands,  most of us are forced to trust in our new models (presumably calibrated by someone’s actual experience), technologies, expert opinions, and sound leadership to fill that void. Though we are often resistant to change (and new information) and want to maintain our “Dry feet”, we might consider investing in a pair of Wellingtons and figure out a way to work with water again on a more regular basis.

A friend of mine, Hayley Diamond drew this of me before I moved here. 

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About wateraway

Jessica Ludy is an independent researcher with Unesco-IHE, a Water Resources Planner with ARCADIS, and a Fulbright Scholar in Flood Risk Management at Delft Technical University, the Netherlands. She was formerly the Associate Director of Flood Management at American Rivers in Berkeley, California, where she worked to promote sustainable flood management strategies in regional, and state, and federal agencies. Jessica has also been a lecturer and researcher at UC Berkeley in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning. Jessica grew up on the Great Lakes in Michigan, earned a BSc at the University of Vermont in Environmental Science, and an MSc in Environmental Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. This website is not affiliated with the Fulbright commission, ARCADIS, TU-Delft, Unesco-IHE, or American Rivers.
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