The skies were threatening, but the mood of the group was upbeat and excited as eight of us boarded the plane at Dulles International Airport on May 27, heading to the Netherlands for an eight-day technology exchange program. We were guests of the Royal Dutch Embassy and the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment, which paid for the trip.

The the skies opened up and we sat in the plane on the tarmac for more than three hours before taking off. We looked out the window at the torrential rains and wondered just how quickly this storm water runoff would travel over the pavement, through the drains, into the small feeder streams of Cub Run, Stallion Branch and Broad Run and into the Potomac and then the Bay.

From an elevation of 313 feet above sea level, and without any innovative storm water control systems, we knew the journey of contaminated runoff from the runways to the Bay could not take very long.

At last, our own overseas journey began. We landed at Amsterdam International Airport the next morning, picked up our luggage and went outside to our bus.

The first thing that struck us was the building across the street from the main terminal — it has a totally “green” vegetated roof, that blends perfectly into the landscape around it, and is ready to handle the inevitable rain that is such a part of Dutch life. And, as is the case with one-third of this small country, the airport is below sea level — by about 15 feet.

Integrating green practices into the man-made landscape in the Netherlands is much more common than in the United States, and is much more noticeable. In time, one learns that virtually the entire country is a man-made landscape.

We were a diverse group representing local government (Larry Coffman, Prince George’s County), state government (Jack Frye, Virginia and Bob Summers, Maryland), an interstate commission (Joe Hoffman, Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin), an environmental organization (Theresa Pierno, Chesapeake Bay Foundation), and federal agencies (Robert Pace, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Kelly Shenk, Paulo Almeida and myself, EPA).

The group was hosted, escorted, taught and entertained by representatives of the Dutch embassy in Washington, D.C., Pieter Verkerk and Nell Neal — and a legion of other Dutch representatives at the various site visits, including Dick de Bruin with the ministry in The Hague.

A constant throughout our many site visits and discussions was the warm welcome given to us by all, and the straightforward candor with which the Dutch discussed all issues — from our visits with members of parliament and ministry heads, to members of local water boards.

We learned many lessons, some of which may be applicable to our work in restoring and protecting the Chesapeake, some of which would be difficult to implement successfully in our more diverse, free-wheeling political and economic system, and some that we would all oppose as countering our many restoration and protection goals.

There were also personal lessons: Most of our group did not have an affinity for the Dutch delicacy of raw herring (tails kept on) and chopped onions as an afternoon snack.

We also learned that even in Seattle, Americans consume far less coffee than the Dutch. Caffeine withdrawal is not a problem in the Netherlands. And bikes, bikes, bikes … although we saw no statistics on it, bikes appear to be the major mode of transportation in Dutch cities — for those in suits, skirts or shorts, during rain or shine, it did not seem to matter.

The Dutch are also very conscious of aesthetics and outdoor recreation and have a sophisticated network of greenways (including more than 9,300 miles of bike trails), and infrastructure corridors where development such as highways, rails and power lines are concentrated to minimize the visual impact on green space.

There are many similarities between water issues in the Netherlands and the Chesapeake region. The Dutch consider themselves a “downstream” nation and they are always looking upriver — the Rhine, that is. Most of Holland exists on what is, or was, the Rhine River delta. In retrospect, probably not the best place to lay down roots, but the Dutch have adjusted quite well for almost 1,000 years.

The Rhine drains a nine-country, 77,000-square-mile watershed — similar to the Bay’s 64,000 square mile basin. From its headwaters at 12,000 feet in the Alps, the Rhine flows through western Europe and into the Netherlands and then the North Sea. The last 25 miles of the river constitutes the world’s largest maritime port — Rotterdam.

This entire watershed is home to 50 million people, 20 million of whom rely on the Rhine for drinking water.

In the Netherlands, 67 percent of all of the country’s fresh water comes from the Rhine. And it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world — for both people and livestock. This flood-susceptible area of 25,000 square miles has 16 million people, 13 million pigs, 4 million head of cattle (1.6 million dairy), 100 million chickens and an awful lot of nutrient problems related to these densities.

These close quarters have made it imperative for the Dutch to find innovative ways to deal with animal manure and various types of nutrient inputs — and they have. Poultry farmers have regularly used phytase in feed for a decade or more, and they typically pay to have their manure removed and burned for energy at “green” power plants.

The Mineral Accounting System addresses nutrient inputs and runoff from agricultural lands and requires farmers to pay a levy if too much nitrogen or phosphorus winds up in the water.

Virtually the entire country (97 percent) is hooked up to municipal sewer systems (retrofitted with nutrient removal technology), and “green buildings” are fairly common and heavily promoted by the government.

Innovative engineered infiltration systems are prevalent in urban areas, although they do not often incorporate “living green” options — plants and trees.

All of this takes place in a country that covers only .008 percent of the Earth’s land area, but is the third largest exporter of agricultural goods in the world — after the United States and France.

Every 10 years, the Dutch adopt a National Environmental Policy Plan, making these policies less susceptible to political change than in the United States.

But as everyone was learning during the political transition at the time of our visit, the country is not immune to policy changes, and the new, more conservative government is likely to make some changes, such as the elimination of a “driving fee” for private cars during rush hours that was part of an effort to promote alternatives.

But these Ten Year Plans are great planning tools and take into account long-term impacts such as land subsidence, climate change and sea level rise.

When it comes to water and the Netherlands, there is a constant that has been the policy mantra of the Dutch for nearly 1,000 years — “catch, store, drain away.” The entire landscape and infrastructure of the nation is built on this principal, and things that are associated with the Dutch — windmills, dikes, canals — are all integrated into the Dutch mantra of “catch, store, drain away.”

Windmills did not originate as a source of power or for milling grain, but to drain water from subsiding lands — a result of peat-digging in the 15th century — then to pump it out of local collection canals and into open water and eventually the North Sea.

Democratically elected water boards first came on the scene in the 13th century and are still one of the most dominant means of local government in the country — there are 53 of them.

Technology has marched on over the centuries, but the Dutch policy of catching, storing and draining away water is as fresh as ever. Much of Holland is built on “polders” — former lake or sea bottoms that have been drained, diked and then developed for agricultural or residential lands. Hundreds of thousands of people live on polders.

Perhaps the largest contrast between the Dutch and U.S. experience on water policy is internal politics. In the Netherlands there is, for all intents and purposes, a nationwide consensus on a national policy to deal with water. Dutch culture is intertwined with so many centuries of “fighting water” and “reclaiming” land that it was possible for a true national policy to be developed, implemented and supported by all sectors of society and all regions of the nation.

The last devastating flood in 1953 killed 2,000 people, and it is an event that has driven water policy in the Netherlands for nearly 50 years. The Dutch made a political decision to keep the country the way it was in 1990 — that is to lose no more land permanently to coastal erosion or inland flooding.

And part of this national policy is that economics do not play a role in ensuring that this goal is met.

The use of language explains a lot of the differences between the Dutch and U.S. perspectives on water resources and coastline preservation. The Dutch are constantly referring to their “fight against the sea,” and water management “deals with an old enemy.”

The Dutch have a Coastal Defense Law, which is not to be confused with the U.S. Coastal Barrier Resources Act. Although both laws seek to protect coastal communities by maintaining beaches and dune systems as “barriers” to tidal surges and floods, the U.S. law is aimed at protecting natural “barrier beaches” from development to maximize their ecological function and minimize federal expenditures for poorly planned development in flood-susceptible areas.

The Dutch law requires that any coastal area with at least a 1 percent chance of flooding must be built up with protective dunes or other man-made structures. In the Netherlands, coastline preservation is accomplished with jetties, sea dikes or beach renourishment with dredges. The country spends between $30 million and $40 million every year on beach renourishment for coastal defense purposes.

Of course, in the United States we have some parallels, with many flood control projects in both inland and coastal areas. And we spend a good deal of money year in and year out to replenish beaches, such as Ocean City or Virginia Beach, although it is more for tourism and recreation than for flood control. But in the United States, we do have a history of preservation which protects natural systems, rather than rebuilding areas for flood protection.

And there is also the Dutch definition of a “natural shoreline,” which is anything that is green — if dikes, levees or irrigation ditches have a vegetated unhardened shoreline, it is considered “natural.” After 1,000 years of intense development and landscape manipulation, there is little in Holland that is “natural” by the U.S. use of the term.

Perhaps the most striking example of our differences relates to estuarine management and the age-old Dutch desire to control water. There are five significant bodies of water in the Netherlands that would have once been estuaries — only one still is. The largest former estuary was the first to be “fought and tamed.” This great inland sea, formerly called the Zuyder Zee, covered 1,400 square miles in the north of the country.

This sea, about a quarter of the size of Chesapeake Bay, provided access to the North Sea for the port of Amsterdam and the many fishing villages lining its 185-mile shoreline. The Zuyder Zee itself supported an intensive commercial fishery for smelt, flounder, shrimp, herring, eel and anchovies.

In a project started in the 1920s and completed in the 1960s, a barrier dam was built across the 18-mile mouth of the estuary, cutting it off from the sea.

It was then systematically sectioned off and is now a great inland lake, Nearly half of the lake’s area was drained to create polders housing 3,000 farms, 85,000 homes and 250,000 people.

The estuary or Zuyder Zee was further broken into new fresh water cells, the biggest of which is Lake Ijsselmeer. The Dutch manage a series of freshwater ecosystems with an incredibly complex array of dams, sluice ways, locks and canals, along with fish passages for the steadily declining runs of eels and anadromous fish. But fishery managers in the Netherlands have simply switched to managing this entire system as a new freshwater system, focusing on pike and bream.

There is no longer a place called the Zuyder Zee — it is a historical geographic anomaly that has been replaced by several inland lakes and polders.

Even the current literature issued at the Poldermuseum on the former estuary bottom, expresses the Dutch perspective, “With the Zuyder Zee Project a dangerous inland sea of over 3,600 square km. has been turned into freshwater lakes and land.”

The Zuyder Zee project was the model for the massive Dutch public works called the Delta Project in the southwest province of Zeeland. The Delta Project began in the late 1950s by cutting off more estuaries from the sea to prevent flooding and to expedite the implementation of the Dutch mantra — catch, store, drain away.

The last barrier of 13 dams, and storm barriers was finished in 1997, creating a series of large, fresh water lakes. These barriers are generally huge sluice gates which are open during low tide to allow freshwater to flow off the land and drain into the North Sea, and then the gates are lowered and closed on the rising tide to prevent salt or flood waters from entering the semi-closed freshwater systems. I am not aware of an analogous situation in the United States.

But there are some emerging changes to the Dutch water policies, especially regarding inland flood planning — a crack in the policy dike. Beginning in 1998, there have been policy discussions about actually “giving water more land.”

There have been proposals and serious discussions about designating some sparsely populated and very flood-susceptible lowland areas — mostly agricultural — as flood water storage areas in the event of a catastrophic inland flood. It has been calculated that a one-in-a-1,000 year flood would cause an estimated $2 billion in damage, rather than the $55 billion price tag if the water could not be diverted to these areas.

Needless to say, NIMBY translates into Dutch very easily and residents of these polders are not receptive to this proposal. But it is still the Dutch mantra of “catch, store, drain away” — just sung to a slightly different tune.

Even in Zeeland, where the Delta Project has changed the face of the landscape — and the former estuaries — in just a generation, there is talk about perhaps keeping the sluice gates open longer to recreate estuarine habitats.

Soon, we will be discussing what the Dutch should see when they come to the Chesapeake for the second part of the technology exchange in 2003. But we are still absorbing what lessons we have learned that might help us here. Some of the most notable:

Climate change, subsidence and sea level rise — The Dutch are talking about these issues, looking forward decades in the future to determine what the impacts will be, and are planning for them now. They have documented past sea level rise and are predicting higher levels over the next century. In the United States, and especially in the Chesapeake region, we are the proverbial ostrich with our head in the hole, seeing no problem. There are serious potential implications for Chesapeake Bay ecosystems.

Disaster leads to political support — Many of the engineering and public works projects, as well as water management policies of the past half century in the Netherlands were a reaction to the great flood disaster of 1953. This response led to full public support for most policies implemented to prevent a future flood disaster.

The same is true here, but we often don’t take advantage of this. The environmental degradation to the Bay caused by Tropical Storm Agnes in the early 1970s led to the creation of the Chesapeake Bay Program a decade later.
The crashing rockfish populations in the late 1970s early 1980s led to the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act and the eventual full restoration of the stocks in little more than a decade.

Non-native oysters — In several locations we were told about non-native oysters (Crassostrea gigas) which were introduced in the 1970s after native oysters were decimated by disease.

Scientists at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology/ Center for Estuarine and Coastal Ecology noted that when gigas were first introduced in the 1970s, they were unnoticed and sparse, needing higher temperatures to reproduce. But over the years they evolved and “are now out of control”. We were told that they filter out larvae from native species, have no predators and have almost completely outcompeted the native oysters.

When told about the discussions in the Bay region about the introduction of Crassostrea ariakensis, the consensus cry from our Dutch hosts was “Don’t do it!”

Manure Management — Public health and safety are among of the most important political issues in Holland, and the Dutch have made a political decision to reduce the high levels of animal production to improve public health and environmental quality.

The Mineral Accounting System is more than just nutrient management plans, and imposes a “polluter pays” concept on those facilities that exceed certain nutrient runoff levels, and tracks mass balances of nutrients on more than 80,000 farms.