Next month, March 15, there will be elections not only for the Provincial Council, but also for the 21 water boards in the Netherlands. They were always there for dry feet, maintenance of dikes and pumping stations and clean water, but in a changing climate with more extreme weather, they are increasingly faced with complicated choices and conflicting interests. Retain or pump out water? Room for the river or for recreation and construction? And should the groundwater level go down or up?
The latter is a sensitive issue, especially in the Dutch peat meadow areas. At least half of the 270,000 hectares of peat in the Netherlands is used by farmers. They benefit from a low groundwater level: this way they can work the land and the cows do not have their feet in the mud.
Water boards have therefore kept the water level in these areas artificially low. But such a low level is not good for the climate, because a lot of CO2 escapes from drained peat – about four percent of the total Dutch emissions every year. Many houses also sag due to the rapid subsidence of dry peat soils.
The problems with the peat are an important theme in the water board in Friesland, the Wetterskip Fryslân. There they have more than 70,000 hectares of peat with about 900 farms on it. One of these is Haye Ketelaar’s dairy farm in Heeg.
The groundwater level under his land is now on average about 80 centimeters below ground level. But he also has to believe it. “They’re talking about a level of -60 or even -40,” he says concerned. To keep as much CO2 in the ground as possible, -20 is considered the ideal position. “But you can’t do anything with that, then I might as well stop.”
With a high water level, less grass grows. Ketelaar now grows this as feed for his cows. Less grass means less yield: “What is your revenue model then?” Dairy farmer Jaap Formsma also wonders this. He has a farm with 210 cows in the Groote Veenpolder and touches on another sensitive point: “My cows don’t have webbed feet. He would have to keep them inside, says Formsma: “You also lose a traditional Dutch scene because of it.” .
‘Water retention champion’
Sjoerd Galema is party leader for the CDA and he stands up for the interests of farmers in Friesland. “We need to look closely at where things are possible,” says Galema, who was previously a deputy for the province of Friesland and a director at dairy company FrieslandCampina. “In some places that means raising the groundwater level. But it is also important that we can continue to farm in this province. What is their perspective? You should know that before you raise the water level.”
Monique Plantinga of the ‘green’ party Water Naturally also wants the farmers to stay in Friesland. But at the same time she also wants to “become a water retention champion”. In some cases, she says, this means that agricultural land has to be sacrificed.
Tons of CO2 are released from the peat into the air every day. Many small steps are taken, while you have to think about big decisions.
At the moment, things are not going fast enough, she says: “Every day, tons of CO2 are released from the peat into the air. Many small steps are taken, while you have to think about big decisions: put a part of the deep peat polders under water? Should we switch to wet cultivation? Those are the conversations we need to have.”
The groundwater level is also the basis of another theme of Plantinga’s campaign: ‘Don’t let the citizen down’. According to Plantinga, thousands of homes with wooden foundations in Friesland are at risk of subsidence due to the ever-lower water levels.
Ellen Dekker has already made it that far. Her historic farm in the Groote Veenpolder is sinking further and further away. “There are more and more cracks.” The damage would already be in the tons.
Decided from above
This year’s water board elections are different from previous years. Previously, about a third of the water board board consisted of ‘secured seats’: seven to nine permanent seats for farmers’ interest groups, nature clubs and the business community.
The latter has been scrapped by an initiative law of D66 and GroenLinks. This gives voters more influence on the composition of the board. Monique Plantinga welcomes the change and hopes that this will give more weight to the “green vote”.
But dairy farmer Haye Ketelaar is not happy with the disappearance of the permanent seats. “In the past, water levels were regulated by the farmers themselves. My main concern is that knowledge, practical agricultural knowledge is lost in the boards. That decisions are made from above, without consulting us.”
- The House wants voters to have more influence on the water board as early as March 15
- Senate: Voter gets more influence on water boards
- New water measures on the way: higher groundwater level and stricter environmental requirements