Floodgates in Venice Work in First Main Check

ROME – After decades of bureaucratic delays, corruption and opposition from environmental groups, the walls that were supposed to protect Venice from “Acqua Alta” or floods rose on Saturday and tested its ability to deal with the city’s increasingly threatening floods.

By 10 a.m., all 78 locks barricading three inlets to the Venetian lagoon had been raised, and even when the tide reached four feet, the water level in the lagoon remained constant, officials said.

“There wasn’t even a puddle in St. Mark’s Square,” said Alvise Papa, director of the Venice department that monitors the tide.

Had the flood barriers not been increased, about half of the city’s streets would have been submerged, and visitors to St. Mark’s Square – which flooded three feet at high tide – would have waded in a foot and a half of water, he said.

“Everything is dry here. Pride and joy, ”tweeted Luigi Brugnaro, Venice’s newly elected mayor.

The mobile barrier system was developed around four decades ago to protect Venice from flooding. It was delayed by cost overruns, corruption and opposition from environmental and nature conservation groups. The system’s cost has tripled from initial estimates, and a 2014 bribery scandal resulted in the arrest of then-mayor Giorgio Orsoni and dozens of other people, including politicians and business people, who were involved in the project.

Mr. Orsoni and some of the other defendants were acquitted.

“We found a difficult situation and were able to slowly, slowly resolve things,” said Giuseppe Fiengo, one of the commissioners who have been overseeing the project since 2014. “It is important that today for the first time with flooding, Venice did not flood. “

The locks were tested several times last summer, but under less threatening weather conditions than on Saturday.

“This time we raised them to defend Venice,” said Alberto Scotti, the engineer who designed them.

The system is not yet fully functional. Some infrastructures have yet to be completed and staff are not fully trained. Therefore, the operation on Saturday was technically a test.

“But it’s a test that was aimed at keeping the city safe, and it did,” Scotti said.

The construction companies building the system have until December 2021 to complete the work. If it is fully operational, the locks will activate when the tide reaches 3½ feet. Until then, the locks will operate when the tide reaches four feet, as on Saturday.

Though the tides were significant on Saturday, they were a far cry from the exceptionally high water levels last year – six feet – and the year before, which put the city at risk and prompted the mayor to declare a state of emergency.

Mr Scotti said the locks were designed to defend the city “even in anomalous situations” and even when the tide reaches nearly 10 feet.

While proponents of the project hailed Saturday’s test as a huge victory, some pointed out that the locks will not fully resolve the growing threat of climate change. Rising sea levels and new wind patterns could hold the locks open so often that they could destroy shipping traffic or turn the Venice Lagoon into a swamp.

“With climate change, there is a chance the locks will be in operation 150-180 days a year, which becomes an almost solid barrier and separates the lagoon’s relationship with the sea,” said Cristiano Gasparetto, an architect and former provincial official who is long the project has spoken out against it.

“If the lagoon is cut off from the sea for long periods of time, it dies because natural water exchange ceases and all of its organic life threatens to deteriorate,” he said.

“If the lagoon dies, Venice dies,” he added. “It loses its properties.”

Mr Gasparetto also said he doubted the locks would work in extreme conditions with high waves and high winds. “There is still a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “Today’s test says nothing about it.”

Concerns remain about the cost of maintaining the locks and possible damage from salt water.

Nevertheless, the operation of the gates on Saturday in Venice was welcomed as progress.

“Today we had the certainty that it would work,” Luca Zaia, president of the Veneto region, which includes Venice, told reporters on Saturday. “At least we know it can help Venice.”

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