A waterboard is an organisation responsible for water management in a certain territory. It is also used to demarcate that territory. Within the Netherlands there have been thousands of waterboards, until they merged into ever bigger entities in the twentieth century. As of 2010, only 26 waterboards remain, whereas thousands existed in the early modern period. Most of the remaining ones are large, some covering complete provinces (Friesland, Groningen). The early waterboards were mostly small, varying from a few hectares up to a few hundred hectares, but there were also large ones, covering a third of a province. Their tasks were as heterogeneous as their sizes. The major tasks were drainage and flood protection, irrigation being irrelevant in the Netherlands. Flood protection ranged from the maintenance of small wooden sluices to maintaining a very long and strong dike along the sea. Drainage tasks varied from keeping ditches clean in a polder to supervising hundreds of windmills and long drainage canals in a region. Naturally, the budgets of the waterboards varied widely as well.
Until the nineteenth century, waterboards in the Netherlands were neither private corporations nor public corporations, but they had elements of both. The landowners had a big say in the management of a waterboard, but they could not operate without consent of local or state officials. This led to a debate in the nineteenth century when the need was felt to classify the waterboards in a category. It was finally decided they were corporate bodies, forming a fourth layer of administration next to the communities, the provinces and the State. From the point of view of corporate collective action therefore, waterboards are most interesting in the medieval and early modern period. But even then, they were not all organised in the same way. Some depended very much on the local administration, which kept the documents and if needed, took the initiative to call together a representation of land owners to inspect the works. Other waterboards functioned permanently and consciously kept their own archives. This great diversity of waterboards is not specific to the Netherlands, but is found everywhere. What may be a bit special is the fact that Dutch waterboards show relatively frequent evolutions in tasks, size, budgets, or organisation. This in itself is probably explained by the changeability of the landscape, necessitating adaptations of existing arrangements.
As there is no generally accepted classification of waterboards, we decided to classify them in a way most suited to the theme of the research programme: corporate collective action. This resulted in four types of local waterboards and a collective category of larger waterboards. More information on these subtypes can be found by clicking the connected link beneath:
A bedijking is a polder, created in an embankment project from sea or river water. Most of the waterboards in the province Zeeland are of this type. Contrary to polders they, just like the droogmakerijen, do have a written foundation document marking the start of their existence. Bedijkingen, droogmakerijen, and (old) polders all share the following characteristic that distinguishes them from ordinary lands: they are areas in which the level of the water can artificially be controlled, independently of its surroundings.
A droogmakerij is a polder, created in a drainage project out of a natural lake or out of broad meres. Most of them are found in the provinces Holland and Utrecht, although they are a minority compared to the more common ‘polder’. Contrary to polders they, just like the bedijkingen, do have a written foundation document marking the start of their existence. Droogmakerijen, bedijkingen, and (old) polders all share the following characteristic that distinguishes them from ordinary lands: they are areas in which the level of the water can artificially be controlled, independently of its surroundings.
The type that is called polder or old polder in the related datasets, is a polder that does not owe its existence to land reclamation projects like drainage or embankment projects. Polders are located on old land and are therefore also called old polders. Contrary to bedijkingenand droogmakerijen they do not have a written foundation document marking the start of their existence, instead developing slowly and organically. (Old) polders, droogmakerijen, and bedijkingen all share the following characteristic that distinguishes them from ordinary lands: they are areas in which the level of the water can artificially be controlled, independently of its surroundings.
A waterkering van een calamiteuze waterschap is a waterboard exclusively administering the shoreline defense of a polder that had been declared distressed (calamiteus). From the last decade of the eighteenth century it was possible for polders to declare themselves distressed, which meant that they were unable to maintain their works and in urgent need of help. Distressed polders were supported but also supervised by the provincial estates and they were entitled to financial help from surrounding polders. An Act of 1872 created the possibility to separate the administration of the shoreline defense of a calamiteus polder from the polder itself and so create an extra waterboard. The polder itself continued to exist and took care of the inland works. The institution administering the shoreline defenses was called ‘waterkering van een calamiteus waterschap’. They are a highly specialized kind of waterboard and are mostly found in the province Zeeland. Due to the supervision of the authorities their corporate character is less than that of other waterboards.
Larger waterboardsRegional or supra-local waterboards
The category of regional or supra-local waterboards is not a real type as it lacks uniformity. It was only for practical reasons that we decided to lump all supra-local waterboards together in this heterogeneous category. It includes co-operations of a few polder boards sharing drainage works and large integrated organisations like the hoogheemraadschap of Delfland that supervised the local waterboards in its territory.