Category Archives: Patagonia Sin Represas

Midsummer Floods: Jan. 27th GLOF on the Baker River

What triples the volume of an already massive river?  The Baker already lays claims to many superlatives: largest river by volume in Chile, draining from Lago General Carrera, the second largest lake in South America, and from the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, one of the largest extrapolar ice fields in the world.  In the last five years, it has become the subject of the largest environmental fight in Chile’s history: the debate over HidroAysen’s plan to erect mega hydroelectric dams.

On January 27th, three Bakers-worth of water charged down the river as its flow rocketed 3,746 cubic meters per second (132,288 cubic feet per second) from a normal flow of around 1,200 m3/s (42,377 Ft3/s).   The flood-stage volume exceeded the average flow of many of the world’s largest rivers: the Nile, the Missouri, the Yellow River of China, the Rhine.  For most of a day, the Baker was running at five times the volume of the Hudson River in New York.

 Where did this tsunami of water come from? For now, no industrial human interference.  On January 25th, a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) began at the Cachet 2 lake, a vast, two-square-mile glacial lake in the Baker watershed.   This lake drains from the Colonia Glacier, perpetually rising and falling according to the melt rate of the glacier and surrounding ice field.  At certain moments, however, an accelerating melt rate raises water pressure and puts great stress on the ice dam that forms the end of the lake.  Water forms a channel underneath the ice dam and into the Colonia River below.  The initial trickle grows exponentially in volume, until the ice dam gives way to the stress.  Within a matter of hours, the entire lake—all 200 million cubic meters of it—dump out, like water rushing down the bathtub drain.

The water of Cachet 2 then travels a brief way down the Colonia River before joining the Baker River.  For several hours, the supercharged volume of the Colonia River pushes the Baker upstream at the point of confluence as it floods out in all directions.  Some of us drove out through the Colonia Valley to see the effects: water covering farms and roads, and the river spilling over its banks.  We visited the farm of the parents of park guard Daniel Velasquez, where high water had flooded bridges.  Thanks to a radio-based early alert system, they had moved their livestock to higher group and so suffered few major losses from the flood.

The history of GLOFs in the Baker watershed tells a frightening tale even for a climate change skeptic.  Historical records show periodic GLOFs in the area.   Prior to 2008, however, the last recorded GLOF in the Baker watershed occurred four decades ago.  Since 2008, six GLOFs have rocked the Baker.  Scientists have well documented the accelerated melt rate of Patagonia’s glaciers, whose extrapolar location makes them particularly sensitive to small variations in climate patterns. At the 2010 climate change talks in Cancún, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report on mountain glaciers, stating that glaciers on Argentine and Chilean Patagonia are “losing mass faster and for longer than glaciers in other parts of the world.”

The increasing instability of the Baker river system raises yet another serious technical difficulty with the HidroAysen dam project.  Even a large dam would struggle to withstand the added stress of a triple-volume of river.   Moreover, GLOFs transport large volumes of glacial sediment downstream, which adds further stress to the dam system.  While the natural breakage of an ice dam on Cachet 2 brings major floods to the area downstream, the failure of an immense manmade reservoir on the Baker would wreck havoc many times worse.  As the Patagonia Sin Represas movement has demonstrated, HidroAysen paid little attention to the risks of GLOFs in their original project design.   Our systematic critique of the company’s environmental impact statement highlighted this flaw, but HidroAysen has failed so far to give an adequate response.

Seven years into the campaign to save Patagonia’s rivers, the spectacle of the engorged and unpredictable Baker returned us to the wildest of a wild river.  No scheduled release determined its volume and no reservoir caught the glacial outflow.  Among the many reasons to oppose the dam project, the spiritual value of a wild river is one of the more difficult to price and evaluate.  Yet spending time with the dynamic Baker produces an undeniable expansion of the imagination and spirit.

For more information in Spanish, see this article.

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Newsflash: HidroAysén announces the route of its power lines

Recently, HidroAysén (the multinational energy conglomerate planning to erect five mega hydro dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers) announced the route of their proposed transmission line, now estimated to cost USD$3.8 – 4 billion, although likely more: between Cochrane and Chaitén, a distance of about 1,200 miles, there would be 1,500-1,700 high tension towers over 160 feet high. The lines would pass through many iconic, ecologically sensitive, and previously untouched areas of Patagonia, including the General Carrera and Las Torres lakes and Cerro Castillo National Park, as well as countless private properties. Putting together all the data we now have about the projects, it is becoming increasingly clear how damaging these dams will be to the Chilean landscape and its people.

Short video of the Rio Baker, at its confluence with the Chacabuco, at the border of the future Patagonia National Park

The release of this new information came later than it should have. In August 2008, HidroAysén announced the results of its environmental impact assessment. According to standard protocol, the route of their transmission line should have been released in conjunction with this earlier report; yet, in a move that benefitted their chance of approval, the company presented these items for approval separately.

For a close-up look at the power lines and the route they will cover, check out this interactive map.

Upon releasing this information, HidroAysén also began talks with twenty communities along the Baker and Pascua rivers that will inevitably be affected or displaced entirely by the dams, in the hopes of minimizing the negative public response. The overwhelming response from citizen-led groups who oppose the dams is that these conversations are an empty gesture – that no amount of money or attention can compensate for the cultural loss. Patagonia “is Chile’s only piece of environmental heritage that remains intact,” says Patricio Rodrigo, executive secretary of the Patagonia Defense Council. “Even the smallest alteration will significantly degrade its value – in terms of both its beauty and our national identity.”

With this tough news comes a renewed sense of energy and urgency from the opposition, united around a common belief that Patagonia is a precious and irrevocable treasure for Aysén, for Chile, and for the world. This is why it’s now more important than ever that we preserve what we can. Knowing that the future of these rivers is uncertain, it’s easy to feel discouraged. But let us also focus on the possibilities in front of us and what we can do to protect this place that is currently under unilateral attack. In building Patagonia National Park, we are drawing a permanent line in the sand. Please join us as we redouble our efforts to safeguard this last unmarred piece of the planet.

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For more background on the Patagonia Sin Represas campaign, below is our update from November 15 (see full post here):

Just a few months ago, the proposed damming of Patagonia’s Baker and Pascua rivers made headlines worldwide. Patagonia Sin Represas, the campaign that began in Cochrane as a small grassroots movement to oppose HidroAysén’s plan for five mega-dams, had blossomed into a series of large-scale demonstrations that swept through Chile’s major cities in May and June.

At that time, momentum was at a fever pitch, and optimism was building as HidroAysén underwent a series of environmental impact assessments. A major victory came on June 20th when the court of appeals in Puerto Montt ordered that all permitting and initial construction be put on hold pending the outcome of their review. This unprecedented decision, though inherently temporary, will remain an important historical milestone; as NRDC’s Amanda Maxwell writes, it was “a rare victory for environmental law over big business interests.” Incidentally, one of the leaders in reaching this agreement was Macarena Soler, a lawyer with Conservación Patagonica.

Yet despite these legal advances and the outpouring of opposition to the dams, HidroAysén has managed to push its project forward through the impressive series of obstacles the opposition has thrown in its path.  And because the international media moves from one environmental hot topic to the next in a matter of months, it’s easy to have a false sense of security about what very well might happen to the endangered Baker and Pascua. The most recent development does not bode well for these beloved waterways: in October, the court of appeals overruled the injunction, thereby lifting the suspension order a lower court had imposed in June.

But the battle is far from over. From here, the case will go to the Chilean Supreme Court. So it seems there is still a chance to turn this roadblock into a dead end for the dams. For those who wish to stand in solidarity with the Sin Represas movement, the best advice is simple: don’t give up. From what we’ve seen so far, public opposition from both in and outside of Chile has been the strongest force in delaying HidroAysén’s agenda. Whether taking to the streets in Santiago, raising awareness about this unfinished story, or engaging in the growing dialogue around Chile’s need for alternative energy, the message must be loud and clear: these dams will be unhealthy for Chile’s communities, its wildlife, and its future.

 

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