10/08/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Go with the Flow

​One of environmental activists' principle formulas is to act in harmony with nature as much as possible. It is an approach which is not, as some critics maintain, a reversion to the Stone Age.

​The idea is to hitch a ride with nature's evolutionary processes rather than attempt to reconfigure them to meet artificial specifications.

​If at all possible, it just makes sense to treat a powerful force as an ally rather than an adversary. New Orleans has belatedly adopted this philosophy, assisted by a tutorial from the Netherlands. For centuries, the Dutch have successfully applied the harmonization technique to save their subsiding below-sea level land mass from permanent inundation.

Instead of waging a losing battle against heavy seas, New Orleans--also below sea level--is following the Dutch example. Flood waters will be allowed to gush naturally into areas inherently suited to absorb the surplus. Such natural repositories include lakes, ponds, marshes, or ordinarily dry parkland. The idea is to let the flooding recede in a natural way rather than artificially try to tightly contain it in what is usually a costly, largely ineffectual struggle.

​New Orleans is not the only dramatic example of synchronization with nature's flow. Congress decades ago ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to transform the sinuous Kissimmee River in central Florida into a 53-mile long straight-as-an-arrow artificial channel to accommodate boat traffic and create farm land.
​Much was ventured and pitifully little gained by revamping nature. There was a substantial loss in wildlife habitat, flood control, and water quality. A contrite Congress realized its mistake and authorized a 12 year, $578 million program to restore the river to its natural contours. The work is scheduled to be completed by 2015 and already has resulted in the return of much of the waterfowl that had vanished from the scene.
​Then there is the Jersey shore, still recovering from the effects of Super Storm Sandy. Efforts are underway to restore the coastal dunes, forests, marshes, and coral reefs that served as buffers against severe oceanic weather until displaced by human development.

​The good news is we are learning--albeit sometimes the hard way--that a better outcome is likely when we adjust to natural processes rather than the other way around.