Raising the Bar for Levees

By Lougheed, Tim | Environmental Health Perspectives, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Raising the Bar for Levees


Lougheed, Tim, Environmental Health Perspectives


Human beings have likely been battling rising waters since the dawn of organized agriculture. Farmers around the world have traditionally been drawn to the rich soils of floodplains, which are generally well worth the trouble occasionally caused by surrounding waterways. Densely populated urban areas subsequently grew up around many of these same places, attracted by additional assets such as access to fishing and easy navigation. These settlements often require substantial and ongoing engineering efforts to secure the physical safety of the community. While the fundamental principles and challenges of holding back water have not changed, the tools we can bring to the task continue to become more sophisticated.

As events in the Gulf Coast recently demonstrated, efforts to hold back the sea are sometimes doomed to failure. Engineers are debating how and even whether the levee system around the New Orleans area should be rebuilt. But the options today are much greater than when the Mississippi 'River levees were first built.

Levees built today may look the same as they always have but can incorporate design, construction, and maintenance innovations that are finding their way into civil engineering. Some of these features smack of high technology, such as elaborate sensors to detect stresses and strains within the structure, so as to provide a warning of critical pressures that could signal serious damage or collapse. Similarly, impermeable lining materials known as geomembranes can be laid down underneath the structure before it is built, so that the seepage of water through the ground cannot erode foundations.

Above all, engineers continue to improve their understanding of water flows, taking advantage of ever more detailed computer modeling techniques to describe the implications of barrier design to experts in the field, political or legal authorities who may be responsible for those barriers, and members of the public.

Lessons from the Dutch

Perhaps no country has a more vested interest in levee safety than the Netherlands, which has occasionally paid a high price for sustaining major population centers well below the level of the stormy North Sea. In the winter of 1953, the sea breached a system of dikes that had been in place since the Middle Ages, causing floods that killed nearly 2,000 people. This catastrophe galvanized the nation's political and social commitment to mounting and maintaining a sophisticated system of barriers that has set the standard for the rest of the world.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, major dams were constructed to hem in hundreds of miles of the country's vulnerable coastline, knit together with earthen embankments and massive sluice gates over the delta stretching across the mouths of the Rhine, Maas, Waal, and Schelde Rivers, which all drain into the North Sea. The scale of this project--dubbed the Delta Works is highlighted by the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier, which was completed in 1986. Designed to protect the ecological integrity of the surrounding estuary, the structure features 62 openings for tides to flow back and forth.

Engineers had never before attempted to erect sea defenses on this scale, and the Dutch became pioneers in the field. The five-mile-wide opening at the Oosterschelde, for example, called for 65 separate concrete piers more than 100 feet in height, which were built in place to an accuracy on the order of a few inches. Such precision was ensured by setting them on gigantic steel mesh "mattresses" filled with sand and gravel, which would prevent erosion that could shift the piers out of position.

In 1997 an even more ambitious undertaking was completed in the country's southwest, where the Maeslant flood barrier includes two hollow arched doors, each about 1,000 feet long and 70 feet high, which float in side channels when not in use. They are rotated into their protective posture by steel ball joints 35 feet in diameter. …

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