Tag Archives: HidroAysen

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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Finding Silencio, Huemul of the Baker River

For years, HidroAysen has claimed that the megadams planned for the Baker River would not disturb any habitat of the critically endangered huemul deer.  At the end of May, a team of Conservacion Patagonica park guards surveyed the area that the Baker 1 dam will flood.   The group included veteran huemul trackers Daniel Velasquez and Delmiro Jara, who have spent decades tracking and understand huemul behavior better than almost anyone.  They sighted several huemul, including a male they have monitored since birth, named Silencio.

 All native Patagonians, they wrote this account as an expression of their love for their land and its wild inhabitants.  Luigi Solis, head of trailbuilding and restoration at the future Patagonia Park, narrates the huemul survey, while Daniel Velasquez tells the story of Silencio’s life.  They shared this piece with numerous Chilean news outlets, not to provoke controversy, but rather to convey the beauty of what could be lost forever. Below is the poster image they created to distribute with their account.

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Tracking Huemules on the Shores of the Baker River

by Luigi Solis

“Neighbors of the park had told us stories of huemul sightings along the Baker River, where huemuls never before had been recorded. Early on May 26, Daniel Velazquez, Delmiro Jara, Cristian Rivera and I (Luigi Solis) set off from the Chacabuco Valley to investigate these reports.  We headed to the “Eses” sector, near the confluence of the Baker and Nef Rivers, about fifteen kilometers upstream from the park.  Whenever we survey wildlife on neighbors’ land, we invite them to join us.  This time, Fabian Ibanez, who manages sheep in this area for the Baker River Association, participated with enthusiasm.

“When we arrived at the “Eses,” we split into three walking groups, fanning out to survey the terrain.  I took the path closest to the Baker River: since few may have the privilege of walking by this river in its natural state, I wanted to record and share the experience through photographs.    Almost immediately, we found several sets of fresh huemul tracks, possibly only a day old.  For a long time, we walked following these tracks, waiting to find the animals that made them, to know for certain they had made a home here.

“After walking along the tracks for several hours, we had yet to find the huemuls themselves.  We regrouped and shared some lunch as we re-evaluated our route and surveying method.  Two options presented themselves for the afternoon: continue along our path, walking downstream along the Baker, or move to a different sector.  Any way we proceeded, our chances of sighting these shy and rare deer remained low.  Continuing along our previous route well might yield nothing.  Yet changing course and searching the new area seemed perhaps even more unlikely, since livestock grazed in that area.  As we finished our lunch, we resolved to continue on downstream towards the Chacabuco-Baker Confluence, once again following the fresh tracks of the huemul.

“We had walked only twenty meters, all together, when Don Delmiro said, with the steady certainty of a man who at 64 still walks the hills of his beloved Baker, ‘here we find the animals.’

“Right then, we caught sight of two, then three, and finally four huemul deer, docile and serene.  As we studied them, we determined that their little band consisted of an adult male, a juvenile female, a young female, and one fawn.  The male, Daniel realized, was Silencio, an animal he had tracked since birth but had lost contact with years before.  He tells the story of Silencio’s life below.

“Watching them watch us, we stood spellbound, and felt in our bones an obligation to help them survive in this land they call home.  We returned to the park deeply stirred by the creatures we had seen, so quietly dwelling in that fated landscape.  That evening, I sat down to describe what made this huemul sighting so stirring.  All of us have spent years watching these deer, but felt especially lucky be the first ones to record huemul in this place, slated for flooding if the HidroAysen project proceeds.

“Son of hardworking and humble country people, I consider myself a Patagonian in and out.  My family lived almost self-sufficiently in a remote area.  Milking cows, planting gardens, making hay for harsh winters, and tending our small herd of sheep were my childhood pastimes.  For years, I did not attend school, but when I got the opportunity, I studied with the same determination I had brought to farm chores.   Although only simple farmers, my parents managed to pay for my technical studies and for those of my two sisters.   I am proud of my Patagonia: its hardworking people who brave tough conditions, its mountains and rivers, and its wildlife.  As a Patagonian, I will defend this place.”

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Silencio’s Story

by Daniel Velasquez

It was November of 2006, and we had spent several days following a pregnant female huemul named “Puntilla” to know when she gave birth.  As part of our huemul monitoring program, we use radio collars and telemetry to follow pregnant mothers, so that we can find and monitor their offspring soon after birth.  Newborn fawns suffer high rates of mortality, so insuring a future for the species depends on investigating major threats to fawns.

 Puntilla gave birth on November 21, tucked away in the rocky terraces of the northern shore of the Cochrane River.  She had hidden herself and her fawn well, making it challenging to locate them.  As we observed the pair together and then placed an ear tag in the young fawn, he made not one sound.  “Silencio,” we decided, would be a fitting name for this quiet animal.

For the next year, I saw Silencio often during my days tracking huemuls, taking many photographs of his development.  Always near his mother, he moved along the shores of the Cochrane River, gradually moving closer to its confluence with the Baker River.

When Silencio reached one year of age, his mother moved from this area : when female huemuls are about to give birth to a new fawn, they will often leave behind their year-old young to devote their energy to the newborn.   She gave birth to her fawn, but Silencio seemed to have disappeared. His radio transmitter had stopped working.  Although we searched for him carefully, we could find not a trace and never saw him in the park again. Since we found no evidence he had died, we classified him as “missing” in our study.

For five years, I followed Puntilla, who still lives in the headquarters of the Cochrane River.  Through tracking and monitoring her, I have recorded all her pregnancies and tagged all her young.  Yet of all her offspring, only Silencio made it to adulthood.

Rumors from neighbors of small family group of huemuls living along the Baker prompted us to survey this area, never before considered territory of the huemul.  On the day Luigi recounts above, we not only saw huemuls in this area for the first time, but also rediscovered Silencio after four and a half years.  Although his transmitter no longer functioned, his ear tag allowed us to identify him.

To our surprise and delight, Silencio had survived to seek new lands and establish his own territory, clearly marked with his antler scrapings on trees.  He had established a new family with various females and their offspring.  Silencio appears well on his way to becoming the pioneer of a new population of huemuls in this area.

Silencio selected his territory wisely: on the steep banks of the Baker River, this area is forested and away from herds of livestock.  But as he made a home and family here, Silencio could not know the human plans for the region.  With the construction of HidroAysen’s Baker 1 megadam, his new home territory will be flooded.  Heavy machinery and hundreds of construction workers will invade his silence, chopping their way through his home forests.

We returned to the park that evening inspired by these wild animals’ ability to survive and thrive, yet the knowledge of the fate of this area clouded our delight.  We share this story of the huemuls of the Baker River to tell the people of Chile how their totem animal, a proud presence on the national shield, is at stake in this decision.

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New Video: Kayak Club of Cochrane

We think of our part of Patagonia, Chile’s Aysen region, as one of the wildest, most beautiful and “best for adventure” places on the planet.  So we love seeing how these steep mountains, dramatic fjords, and imposing rivers inspire people to develop their skills and explore new places.  Outdoor enthusiasts from around the world flock to Patagonia for its extreme challenges, but Patagonia’s own residents give them a run for their money.

In the town of Cochrane, just south of the future Patagonia National Park, “Club Náutico Escualo” teaches kids everything from getting into a kayak to running Class V+ rapids.  In 1999, Roberto Haro Contreras and Claudia Altamirano founded the club as a way of introducing Cochrane’s children to the natural world around them.   They aim to build local pride through giving the next generation of Cochraninos the skills to explore their wild backyard.  And what’s their classroom? The mighty Baker River, next door to town–and slated to be dammed by HidroAysen.

Our friend Weston Boyles just finished this short video about the Club, which has aired on TV stations across Chile.  Thank you, Weston, for sharing it with us and telling another element of the Patagonia Sin Represas story!

Learn more about the Club Náutico Escualo here.

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