The Lagoon protection (1973-1985)
Luigi Scano
From the 1973 Special Law to the Consorzio Venezia Nuova (Venezia Nuova Consortium), in Luigi Scano’s chronicles, documents and memories. A selection from: Luigi Scano, Venice: Earth and water, Edizioni delle autonomie, Roma 1985, and my postscriptum: Let’s actualize it to 2003.

The overall plan for defence against “high water”(Chapter XIV, 3)

The law n.171, 16 April 1973, appoints to the State “the regulation of sea levels inside the lagoon, in order to save urban centres from high water” through “works that respect the hydro geological, ecological and environmental values and by no means hinder or compromise the maintenance of the lagoon’s physical unity and continuity”. According to the same special law, on the 27th of March 1975 the Council of Ministers approved the guidelines for the Venice area local plan and defines the criteria for the lagoon water level regulation works, under the State responsibility.

The guidelines state that “the preservation of the lagoon’s hydrogeological balance and the decrease of high water inside historical centres to levels that do not hinder the functionality of the ports and the development of everyday activities must be obtained through a fixed lagoon inlet regulation system, which could later be integrated with manoeuvrable parts, if necessary, depending from tide levels, up to the complete shutting up of the lagoon inlets.”

The same guidelines state that “in technical projects the influence of the hydrodynamic regime upon the expansion of tides inside the fish farms must be considered… also the already dried up areas of the so-called third industrial zone” not yet reserved for the expansion of the commercial port structures. Also that “more works can be planned to increase the reducing effect”:

- reduction of resistance to high tides in the northeast zone of the lagoon;

- reduction of sea beds to normal levels; sea beds are now deeply eroded by the currents, in the S.Nicolò channel… also in the lagoon intakes of the Malamocco and Chioggia port-channels;

- increase, through appropriate means, of the dissipation of energy from the tidal flow along the path of the port-channels”.

According to the guidelines, the Ministry of Public Works must be authorized, as per law n.404 of the 5th of August 1975, to call for an international tender for “the execution of necessary works to preserve the Venice lagoon hydrogeological equilibrium and to decrease high water levels inside the city centre”.

The tender is called for by a Ministerial Decree on the 11th of September 1975; the deadline, already fixed for the 31st of July 1976, is delayed to the 31st of December of the same year. Six projects are presented; one of them is deemed unacceptable by the Evaluating Commission, appointed by MD the 7th of April 1977, so only 5 remain. After 13 joint meetings and several workgroup meetings, the Evaluating Commission, on the 31st March 1978, states that no project can be accepted, although all of them are deemed worth of consideration; the contract can not therefore be appointed, however appropriate initiatives are called for in order to acquire the projects and to employ their specific contributions in a general plan for Venice and its lagoon.

The 5th of February 1979 the Venice City Council unanimously approves a document for the Ministry of Public Works, where, welcoming both the conclusions and the suggestions of the Evaluating Commission, the constitution of “a Committee from the Ministry… together with the Region, the local area, the cities of Venice and Chioggia“ is called for, in order to establish an “operative project”.

The same document states that “the expected solution shall have technical and operative characteristics according to the criteria of gradualism, flexibility and reversibility”, that “the regulation of the sea-lagoon relationship shall be obtained progressively, through appropriately articulated interventions that allow the protection of historical centres from high water to become more effective while the works continue; for the works, technical results from the implementation phase in S.Nicolò di Lido and Chioggia will be used, especially with respect to hydraulic aspects” and that “however, even if the work will be delayed, the interventions’ technical programs shall foresee the possibility of reaching, in time, the protection from exceptional high water with efficient systems”.

On the 22nd of December 1979 a new high water event replays the damage and the drama of the ’66 flood. A few days later, on the 14th of January 1980, the City Council unanimously votes a resolution where, according to a governmental Law Decree of three days earlier which allowed the Ministry of Public Works to acquire the projects that entered the tender and to appoint professional tasks “for the technical solution to appropriately reduce high water in historical centres and to plan the interventions”, asks “the Parliament to converts the decree in law […], that the design phase be completed promptly and that exceptional procedures be designed even for the contracting phase”.

The document restates the contents of the 5th of February 1979 resolution and underlines the need for “a global reshaping of the lagoon”, for which it deems necessary:

“- the protection of shores through all interventions apt to refurbish them;

- the protection of estuary rivers and islands in the lagoon area;

- the constant monitoring and ensuing intervention upon the lagoon bed, in order to adjust it and to defend the city and its estuary;

- the continuous adjustment of the sea beds to the depth strictly necessary for navigation needs;”

also to set up “plans for getting back the largest part of areas and zones for the free expansion of tide”.

The 22nd and 23rd of December 1980 the Venice City Council approves (with the positive vote of PCI, PSI, PRI, PSDI, PLI, the negative vote of DC and the abstention of MSI) a resolution where the need “to proceed to a regulation of the sea-lagoon relationship” and “the absolute need to pursue a plan that reverts the degradation process in the lagoon ecosystem” are underlined. In particular, the resolution insists upon “interventions […] to protect and refurbish the shores”, upon “restoring and maintaining the sea beds”, upon measures to “stop the intake erosion, insure the vivification of all lagoon areas, protect the salt marshes”, upon “works needed to get back areas and zones for the free tidal expansion, including Valle Brenta, the dried areas of the third zone (except the reclaimed area A) and the fish farms”, upon the acceleration of “the planned conversion of the oil supply system, which shall instead be conveyed by means of oil ducts”.

On the matter of the interventions for “the regulation of the three lagoon inlets”, the document states that “they shall be experimental, gradual, reversible and flexible”, that they “shall preserve and never touch the physical and ecological unity of the lagoon”, that they shall “start from the Lido’s inlet” and “avoid works that could worsen, even temporarily, the hydrodynamic situation inside the lagoon”.

Meanwhile, on the 10th of March 1980 the Parliament converted to law the aforementioned Decree. The Ministry of Public Works acquires all projects in the tender and, on the 11th of June 1980, signs a convention with a group of important technicians: prof. Augusto Ghetti, prof. Enrico Marchi, prof. Pietro Matildi, prof. Roberto Passino and prof. Giannatonio Pezzoli, who are joined, after a further convention on the 1st of August of the same year, by prof. Jan Agema and dr. Roberto Frassetto.

These professionals officially submit their work, named “Feasibility study and principle plan” for “the protection of the Venice Lagoon from high water”, to the Ministry of Public Works on the 26th of June 1981. The project, in extreme summary, requires a series of two or more transversal fixed barriers (dams) in each of the three lagoon inlets (Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia), of which the inner ones shall have mobile and sinkable barriers capable to completely shut off the communication between sea and lagoon whenever the tide exceeds 1 / 1.10 meters above the average sea level [1].

The Ministry of Public Works, once received the “Feasibility study and principle plan”, forwards it to the Committee for the Safeguard of Venice, to the High Council for Public Works and to the City of Venice, with the intent of hearing the opinion of the local authorities.

The Committee for the Safeguard of Venice examines the paper during the sessions of the 23rd of September 1981 and the 13th of January 1982, and in the second occasion puts forth a positive principle evaluation.

The City of Venice, with the Province of Venice and the LagoonCities and Venice Hinterland, promotes the public exhibition of the Study’s essential items. At first, on the 24th of October 1981, in the Napoleon Wing of S. Mark’s Square, then in the former church of S.Leonardo in Cannaregio, finally in the Pellestrina island. It also publishes a great number of copies of a book containing its text and graphic works and promotes public debates.

More than 30 thousand people visit the exhibit. Remarkable is also the large participation to the public discussions promoted by the City and by other cultural and political organizations.

The City of Venice receives no less than thirteen articulated and motivated opinions, and several more observations and evaluations.

The debate at the Venice City Council began the 8th of February 1982 with a speech by the Mayor Mario Rigo and a long briefing by the vice-mayor Gianni Pellicani and ends the 22/23th of February 1982 with the unanimous vote for a paper where the “overall plan” is judged consistent with the City guidelines and of the “special law” but “only in respect to interventions to protect the lagoon urban centres from high water”.

This is because the “overall plan”:

“- proves the technical and managerial feasibility of works that can save urban centres from floods, wholly obeying the requirement to respect the lagoon physical and ecological unity;

- assures to contain the influence upon water pollution of the decrease of flows between sea and lagoon, if the planned antipollution programs are carried on;

- outlines solutions that can negligibly influence the full efficiency of the fundamental and inalienable functionality of the lagoon as a port, even in the perspective of a relevant increase in traffic, as planned and expected by the local authorities and the local plan”.

Stating again that “the reduction of high water is just a part of a more general intervention in order to hydrogeologically rebalance the lagoon, to restore the balance between the different parts in the ecosystem, to stop and reverse the degradation of the lagoon basin”, the Venice City Council invites the Government, consequently, “to define, together with the local authorities, a comprehensive plan/program… in order to achieve the aforementioned purposes and the decrease of tide levels”.

In that perspective, moreover, it states that:

“ – the completion of the whole lagoon antipollution plan is absolutely necessary and it must be carried on before completion of the works that will regulate the sea-lagoon relationship;

- all works necessary to the preservation, the restoration and the refurbishing of the shores, the protection of the estuary and island shores inside the lagoon, the reduction of erosion phenomena especially in the Malamocco basin, the monitoring of the sea beds and their constant keeping to levels necessary to navigation needs and at the same time compatible with the lagoon, islands and estuary protection, are to be carried on immediately, possibly through a rearrangement of the rural piers;

- the design and subsequent implementation of all works necessary to restore the free tide expansion areas can not be delayed;

- the already planned conversion of the oil supply system can not be delayed”.

Meanwhile, on the 14th of December 1981, the City Council of Chioggia approved (with positive vote by DC, PSI, PSDI and the abstention of PCI) a document where it is stated that it is “impossible to express… a positive opinion… without precise indications” in regard to “the sand debris transportation and removal system”, the “implementation of antipollution politics in the lagoon basin”, the “protection of the accessibility of the lagoon inlets”, the “possibility of interventions to protect the centres of Chioggia and Sottomarina from ordinary high water”.

During the session of the 27th may of 1982, The High Council for Public Works deems the overall plan “worth of approval” but expresses a remarkable deal of criticisms, underlining the need to carry on further research before starting the implementation phase.

Meanwhile, even the City Council of Venice (session of the 22/23th february 1982) wishes that the works should be contracted through a direct licence (“ concessione”), in order to start quickly. A consortium of companies is started off; its name is “Venezia Nuova”. The 18th of December 1982 a licensing contract is stipulated between the Venice Magistrate of Waters (on account of the Ministry of Public Works) and the Consortium. The Consortium would carry on part of the studies, research and experiments required by the Ministry of Public Works and it would build the central segment of the fixed barrier by the Lido lagoon inlet.

On the 15th of July 1983 the Corte dei Conti (State Bill Revisers’ Court) denies authorization to proceed, stating that, according to current laws, “building licence can be appointed by private contracts … only when explicitly allowed by a special law”, while “contracting shall happen after some kind of tender” and “the licence shall not involve the works management” but “only its building”.

Only after the Court intervention the story becomes known and new arguments are started. Bruno Visentini, president of PRI, writes: “ten years after the special law for Venice, its historical centre safeguard problems … are still unsolved. A consortium of companies is about to be appointed … with the task of carrying on the necessary works: beginning, how it seems, with an appointment for more studies and projects… and continuing with the appointment to carry on the works… But if we were to proceed in this way, relevant errors of method would be done and decisional competences would inadmissibly be eluded.

The appointment can not be about choices regarding the lagoon’s future… Such choices pertain to the politic apparatus… It seems, finally, that further studies, researches and experiments… and technical and scientific monitoring… cannot be appointed to the same contractor that carries on the works; they should be appointed to a different body, with great authority and capable to stand in open dialectic with the licensee.”

Animated discussions occur inside the IX Commission of the Deputies Chamber, which is examining several projects about Venice from DC, PCI and PRI. The 27th of October 1983, finally, the Commission unanimously votes a resolution that, although eluding the problem of the appointment of studies, experiments and implementation, requires that the Government “presents within 3 months a global report about the state of interventions for the protection of Venice” and “define a unitary and global plan for interventions, after hearing the local authorities”.

The Minister of Public Works, Franco Nicolazzi, does not heed the resolution and much less the criticisms towards the attempted use of the “ concessione” (private licencing contract). On the 24th of February 1984, in fact, a second general contract is signed between the Venice Magistrate of Waters and Consorzio Venezia Nuova. The contract is adjusted in order to bypass the formal objections of Corte dei Conti, but it is not different from the first in its contents and less so in its “philosophy”; this time the decree is registered, on the 10th of March 1984.

But, as we will see, arguments about the contract and its implications are not going to stop and they will stir the debate about the new special law for the Venice area, which is being discussed in the Parliament.

The new special law(Chapter XV, 5)

Few years after they were promulgated, the “special law” 171/1973 and the related DPR 791/1973 (about the conservative restoration of lagoon historical centres) already show their limits, their weaknesses, the cultural obsolescence of their inspiration. Their influence upon the upgrade of the urban historical texture has been scarce, almost void relatively to the purpose – albeit considered the most culturally and politically qualifying – of “managing” a relevant recovery of the urban heritage, insuring the success of both its “formal” and “social” outcome.

[…]

On the 27th of December 1983, approving the 1984 financial law, the Parliament allocates 200 billion liras for “new interventions for the protection of Venice”, with the commitment of two more allocations, for the same amount, to be allotted in the financial laws for 1985 and 1986.

On the last days of January 1984 the Venice city councillors submit to the Ministry of Public Works a “pre-law” draft, signed by all, containing proposals for the works to be done and the procedures for the interventions more closely involving the city responsibility.

On the 6th of February 1984 the Republican group of the Chamber presents its own law project, not substantially different from the City Council draft but more keen to specify the purposes and to set the procedures for the interventions under the State responsibility, i.e. the ones regarding the hydrogeological setup of the lagoon basin.

The 14th of June 1984 the Ministry of Public Works submits to the government its own draft for a law project, which is not approved as it is deemed unacceptable by the ministries of the Republican Party, who are also backed by those of the Liberal Party.

The 5th of July 1984 the PCI submits its own proposal which, in regard to the lagoon interventions, follows the republican one, while it is similar to the ministry draft under other aspects.

Meanwhile the Venice City Council votes several other documents, sometimes unitarily, sometimes not, condemning the delays of State and Parliament and criticizing the ministry draft, but never directly facing the real reason for the deadlock. This is on account of its attitude (formally correct, but surely functional to avoid the explosion of internal contradictions inside the PCI-PSI-PRI coalition which governs the city) to not express, as City Council, opinions about the ways the new law will regulate the decisional and managerial processes of works such as those inside the lagoon, under the State responsibility. While, on the contrary, the greatest arguments are really about the last contents of the new law (or, equivalently, about whether the new law should have those contents or not).

The multiplication of law proposals, in fact, and also the inability of the government to design its own proposal, are not results of “byzantinisms” or quarrels between factions. It is, at the contrary, the lining up of the political forces – certainly in an uncommon way respect to usual schemes – exclusively about some crucial “contents” both in terms of merit and method.

The law proposals, in fact, do not differ substantially on the matter of the conservative restoration of lagoon historical centres, or the water pollution elimination, or the intended funding for the Venetian productive activities; the contrasts are there, but they could probably be solved. Regarding the purposes of the lagoon interventions and the regulation of their implementation, however, the line-ups are visibly coherent with one or the other of the two “logics” that have been facing themselves for some time.

The first “logic” considers the lagoon a common water basin, essentially driven by “mechanical” laws, and it tries to eliminate the phenomenon of periodic floods of lagoon inhabited centres – the famous “high water” – through “engineering” interventions upon the communication inlets between sea and water: basically through the installation of tidal flow mobile regulation devices by those inlets.

The second “logic” considers the lagoon a complex and fragile ecosystem, driven by laws that, with a little stretch, are more akin to “cybernetics”; the preservation and global restoration of its basic characteristics of transition zone between sea and land should happen through a coordinated set of diffused works that could, among other things, reduce the tide levels and then preserve the urban centres from the more common medium-low “high water”, reducing so the purpose of the mobile barriers to stopping the tides of exceptional height and frequency.

PRI, PCI and PLI want to follow this second “logic”, and it is probably appropriate to remember that this is the logic of the former “special law for Venice” of 1973, which defines the guidelines for the governmental Venetian local plan of 1975, wholly developed and expressed by the local plan voted in 1980, by the observations and integrations submitted by the City of Venice in 1982 and by several documents voted, sometimes unanimously, by the same City during the last years.

PRI and PCI law proposals wholly and articulately state the purposes of the set of works to be carried out in the lagoon; moreover, they ask for the definition of a “global and unitary plan” (to be adopted by the Government and to be voted by the Parliament) for these interventions and for related necessary studies, research and experiments. In particular, they ask that the correlations between the planned interventions are underlined and their logical and chronological order is defined; and that that order shall be bonding in respect to every public funding for such interventions, with the exception of some categories of works: the merely “conservative” or “upholding” works , and/or urgent interventions.

The Ministry of Public Works, and DC, PSI and PSDI, seem to refer to the first “logic”. This is understood from the generic and non-specific way in which the Ministry’s draft states the purposes of the works in the lagoon, and from the absence of any programmatic frame for the interventions.

Both PRI and PCI proposals state, moreover, that the works can be contracted “in concessione” (with a private licensing contract), but at the same time ask:

- that the “concessione” shall be based upon a law which defines its main characteristics;

- that the “concessione” shall refer and conform to the unitary and global intervention plan;

- that the public authorities shall verify, monitor and eventually change the work project;

- that, finally, studies, research and experiments (except those strictly related to the executive details of the single works) and technical-scientific monitoring shall be appointed to body different from the “licensee” and that they shall get resources, tools and authority in order to fully and efficiently carry their work, even in contrast with the “licensee”.

The Ministry of Public Works’ draft completely ignores this set of problems. It is well known that the Ministry wants to appoint to the very same group of private companies, Consorzio Venezia Nuova Consortium, for both the works implementation (in the limited frame that we mentioned) and the relative studies, research, experiments and technical-scientific monitoring. Basically, the Ministry wants to appoint the same body for both the execution of the works and their evaluation and monitoring, before and after.

On the 3rd of October 1984 the IX Committee of the Deputy’s Chamber, after animated quarrels and frenetic mediations, unanimously approves a document which, approved by the relevant Committee in the Senate, becomes Law n.798, 29th November 1984.

The new law states that the works in the lagoon shall be targeted “to rebalance the lagoon, to stop and reverse the lagoon basin degradation process, to eliminate its causes, to reduce tidal levels inside the lagoon, to protect the islands historical centres through local interventions, and to shelter the lagoon urban centres from exceptional high tides also by means of works by the lagoon inlets, with mobile barriers to control tides”.

The logic under the law proposals from PRI and PCI, backed by PLI too, is therefore completely accepted and punctually described. In order to state how the works should be carried on, a Committee is to be created, composed by the Prime Minister, relevant ministers and local authorities’ representatives. The Committee shall “define guidelines, coordinate and monitor” but it is not explicitly stated that it shall define “the unitary and global plan for interventions” that was described in the law proposals and repeatedly asked for.

It is also stated that the works can be appointed by “concessione”, but its details are not defined. It is only stated that the Committee shall evaluate the contracts, leaving to a decree from the Ministry of Public Works (on the basis of conventions decided by the Committee) the task to define “the modalities and the forms of control upon the licensed works”. Finally, above all, not only it is not stated that studies, research and experiments shall be appointed to body other than the “licensee”, but it is explicitly mentioned that the concessione is “comprehensive”, both for works and for studies and projects.

Let’s actualize it to 2003A note by E. Salzano

Today’s clash between MoSE proponents and opposers has its roots - as Luigi Scano outlines in these pages written in 1985 – very far in the past. They dwell inside the two “logics” that Scano refers to: the one that sees the lagoon as “a common water basin basically driven by mechanical laws”, the other that sees the lagoon “as a compound and fragile ecosystem, driven by laws that, with a little stretch, are more akin to cybernetics, and is interested in preserving and restoring its basic characteristic of transition zone between sea and land through a set of coordinated and diffused works”.



While the opinions are the same, there are however two significant differences:

1) The “mechanicistic” logic was then backed, among local forces, almost exclusively by the PSI Craxi’s followers, represented by Gianni De Michelis, and by a minority group of DC members, while at the national level it was also backed by the powerful group of PSDI social-democrats. And, of course, by lobbies of the building industry and by the powerful engineering lobby. Now the same logic is backed by theNational government right-wing coalition and by a significant part of the Venice center-left council, starting with its most important representative: the City Mayor.



2) At that time, the “systemic” logic received great backing by the national public opinion, mostly in environmentalist and cultural sectors, also thanks also to the presence of relevant personalities like Bruno Visentini and Gianni Pellicani. The deep change in the political and cultural framework (Berlusconi does not represent just himself nor just the right-wing ideology) and the huge power of information control used by Consorzio Venezia Nuova (an information monopolist which gets public funding) played a significant role in weakening those who oppose the MoSE logic.
To gain consensus in a problem so complex such as the Lagoon’s balance, the monopoly of information is a winning weapon.

[1]For a wider discussion of essential items of the “Feasibility study and principle plan” and related happenings please refer to: Comune di Venezia, La salvaguardia fisica della laguna, (City of Venice, The Physical Safeguard of the Lagoon, by Luigi Scano, Francesco Gostoli and Caterina Barovier, Marsilio Editori, Venice, 1983.

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