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Venice Floodgate Project Rejected

December 10, 1998

ROME (AP) _ Italy’s government said no Thursday to an ambitious barrier project to shield Venice from the rising Adriatic Sea, calling it too drastic for the historic city’s fragile lagoon.

Environment Minister Edo Ronchi said the rejection by an environmental impact committee was the last word on the floodgate project, ending more than 10 years and roughly $150 million of planning and studies.

The project would have had ``irreversible and very considerable effects on the lagoon,″ said Maria Rosa Vittadini, head of the government-appointed environmental panel.

Backers had called the project the only real option to safeguard sinking Venice from high water, which floods majestic St. Mark’s Square and other low-lying areas of the canal city dozens of times a year.

Flooding of 32 inches or more hit Venice a record 101 times in 1996, threatening historic treasures and the tourism industry that depends upon them.

The project would have placed 98-foot-high mobile barriers on the seabed at three entrances to the lagoon. The top of the barriers would jut 6 feet above the waves during flooding, shielding the city.

Vittadini said the barriers might have gone up many more times a year than supporters envisioned, risking making the lagoon a turbid quagmire. The project also underestimated the extent to which water rising from below ground was responsible for the flooding, something that was best dealt with by raising Venice’s pavements, she said.

Supporters of the gates said anything but the mobile barriers would be a stopgap measure, inadequate to protect the city as the Adriatic rises ever higher, pushed on by global warming.

Many of the city’s tourist-dependent merchants had backed the project, estimated to cost some $2.6 billion. City leaders had been dubious at best, dreading the potential for bungling and corruption.

With Thursday’s sinking of the floodgate project, Italy’s next step should be restoring the lagoon’s ecological balance _ barring heavy shipping, dismantling fish farms and other measures, said John Millerchip, a leader of a Venice-based umbrella organization of international groups for the city’s preservation.

Only then, he said, can Venice’s protectors get a clear idea of the best way to deal with high water, said Millerchip, who was among those opposed to the flood barriers.