The End of The River

Water is precious essential for life a valuable commodity and harmoniously etched
into our landscape. It flows like a lifeline
through the whole of europe. Rivers are highly sensitive ecosystems
that must keep flowing to make life possible for humans, for all animals and plants. Unfortunately, our rivers
are no longer free-flowing. Today, European rivers are dotted
with dams, locks and hydropower plants. At the beginning of the last century, and ever since man
has begun to use hydropower to generate electricity, more and more hydropower plants have been
placed in this highly sensitive ecosystem. Widespread opinion says that the
generation of renewable energy from hydropower is green
and environmentally friendly. But just how green and environmentally
friendly is it really? On sunday September eleven
I was at the Lech river with my parents in law and my children. We just wanted to sit there and relax. Within about two hours the river level
dropped drastically so that basically only a small trickle of water was left. When my children and I
looked at the dried up area, we found dead and dying fish
in puddles everywhere. So my children and I picked them up
with our hands and put them back into the river, – or rather, into what was left of the Lech. This was such an awful and sad sight. So many fish had died. And at the same time the channel that was diverted into
the city of Gasthofen was full of water. When my father in law and I walked further
along the Lech, at the dam of Gasthofen, we passed a gigantic puddle that bubbled. My father in law said: ‘Look, there is gas rising upwards’.
But when we had a closer look we saw that this was not gas
but a shoal of dying fish. And my father in law said:
‘yes, nature is cruel’. I said, ‘this is not nature.
It”s mankind, which is cruel.’ The water is simply being
diverted into the channel so that the hydropower stations
have enough for their needs. It is a scandal what is happening here
but every cubic meter of water is money. And therefore the water has to be diverted. The Lech and its original inhabitants
get only a rivelet, nothing more. It was really a sad moment to see
what was happening to water, which was needed to run
a hydropower plant. If a small child catches a bullhead
and takes it home to watch it, somebody could come along and say,
that fish is a protected species. But if a hydropower plant
holds back all the water, so that this protected species dies
in dozens and hundreds then, well, that’s ok then. This ultimately is an injustice
to the animals and to the river. I have reported this incident
to the river police. Now the operators of the hydropower
stations are requested to answer. I am curious to see what they are going to say. Or, if they are going to say anything at all. Apparently, the good intention to produce clean energy
has also its dark side. Responsible action towards
the environment and nature does not seem to be that easy. People want to move away
from nuclear energy, but what many don’t know is, that it is not feasible everywhere
to switch to hydropower. We do not yet have
the knowledge we need to make hydropower more
environmentally acceptable. This is a disaster.
There is always a trade-off taking place. When I see how much electricity is produced
in the hydropower plants all over Germany, and especially here in the Lahn, and what comes out of it, the so-called
‘green energy’, it is absolutely the wrong label. The amount of energy that comes out of it
is minimal. You can forget that. When it comes to European rivers
lots of money is made, regardless of the huge
environmental damage it causes. As soon as a stream of water starts flowing,
then the monetary stream also flows in the European stock exchanges. Beside the profit that you can
generate from renewable energy, one of the important things is
that renewable energy really is, as the word says ‘sustainable’, and that means that we have, I would say,
zero impact on the nature. It cannot go on like this. We do not want any further expansion
of these hydropower plants. And we want the existing
facilities on the Lech – that is the technology
that has been put into the Lech – to be reshaped so that it becomes
more ecologically acceptable. More water must flow through the Lech again. The fresh-water fish must get a chance again. Also the people who would like to live
alongside the river, must get a chance again. The use of the hydropower
has left its mark on the river Lech. The Lech has been transformed
into a chain of dams. In many places nothing is left of
the natural environment of the past. Can you imagine the way it was?
The Lech was up to four kilometers wide. That means there were countless
channels and arms of the river. And between these channels and arms
there were gravel and sandy beaches. It was a scenery,
that we cannot recreate any more. In Europe, the Lech is an
alarming example of what happens if a river is developed
radically and systematically in order to generate as much
electricity as possible. This method is called ‘hydro-peak’. That means the water in the Lech
is stored in lake Forgensee when the demand for electricity is low for example from
Friday afternoon until Sunday. And then on Monday-Tuesday,
at times of increased energy demand, the sluice is opened via remote control
from the city of Landsberg. Then the reserve water flows
through the turbines, and the energy is sold on
the European Energy Exchange. So one can generate highly prized energy
in the Lech river, and sell it. And this is exactly what has been done. The German energy provider ‘E.ON’
is active in this field. It covers the area south of the city
of Augsburg up to the north of Augsburg. And nowadays the energy providers ‘LEW’ and ‘BEW’ generate peak-time energy in the Lech
for the Leipzig Energy Exchange. That means that the Lech basically
is not driven by rainfall anymore. But in reality it’s water level
is strongly controlled by the energy exchange in the city of Leipzig. We’re standing here in Gersthofen,
a little bit north of Augsburg. Here they divert all the water from
the Lech river into the channel behind me. As you will see the main river is almost dry. Now we are 20 metres from the channel
right above here. As you can see, the main river is totally dry. The only stream of water that’s running
comes from the fish pass right there on the left side of the dam.
Through the main weir nothing is running at all. Not even a cubic metre. When I first came here to the river meadows
of Lech more than 30 years ago, I must say, I was fascinated by this world. I come from Franconia.
This alpine, or low alpine, river country that you can still perceive today,
has simply fascinated me. I have walked upstream and downstream
many times, even to the source. I must say this wild river,
especially as it has once been, has fascinated me from the very beginning. Today the Lech is the most obstructed
river in the whole low alpine country. I have to say concerning both the Lech
as well as the other alpine rivers, they have paid their dues – one chain
of dams and locks after the other. Unfortunately, they are all ecologically
in a wretched state. Today on the Lech between Füssen and Augsburg
there are twenty dams all-in-all. Only one single dam has a fairly, to some
degree, functioning fish pass. Just imagine that. The old dams are outdated and must be
improved ecologically and technically. Fish migrate upstream as well as downstream. This natural behavior can mean death for many fish. The public cannot see what is happening, because it all happens under water. Only very occasionally does this mismanagement
become visible for us all to see. Often it is argued that you need to have
several waterways, in order to protect the fish, in order to
make sure they go around the power plant. But now in a very perverse way
it’s actually done in such way, that the fish are directed straight into the plant
– into their death so to say. It is frustrating, in a way, to see that the rules,
that were done with good intention when implemented can have an adverse
effect. So, thats why my message is, let’s take inspiration from the good examples. The promises of the hydropower plant operators to protect fish sound good, but often do not function in practice. Gratings are in place to stop fish and floating debris from ending up in the turbines. These gratings are said to be
an environmentally friendly measure. However, in the debris we still find the victims, that did not manage to use the fish pass. And day after day the victims of this power production disappear in containers, unnoticed by the public. This can even lead to a complete and
unseen disappearance of an aquatic animal species. And because it happens under the water surface,
it is not visible. Fish do not shout. They are simply
not present in the scenery. As a layman you cannot judge whether
the water is really alive or not. The problem is, that a change
takes place in the water body, which is not realized at all by the public. Another problem, besides the desertification,
of the diverted river stretches, is the increase of thermal stress. We are increasingly worried about that. We have determined that
our rivers have become warmer. Rising temperature of one to two degrees,
has already spelled the death sentence for greyling. Of course long reservoir areas
contribute to warming as well. That means a rise of the thermal loading
of our rivers. Due to the dammed-back water there is no
natural waterborne transport any more. The gravel spawning species
are affected by this. We also detect a rise of the pH values
in the last number of years, as well as high algae production. Algae that grow and die at some point. The result is a depletion of oxygen in the water. The algae photosynthesis means also
changes in the pH values, causing strong peak pH values,
especially during the day. These are also problems that have
to be considered in a comprehensive survey, and that we increasingly worry about. The fact that hydropower plants also
contribute to the development of greenhouse gas like methane
is another negative side-effect not known to the public. This is a bay in the river Lahn. When you look at the bubbles
you see that gas is rising up. In this bay there is a current in the water causing all the detritus
to collect on the bottom and rot. With this rotting, the oxygen of the
surrounding area is used up fast, and methane gas develops. This methane gas is very harmful for climate
protection. It is 25 times worse than CO2. When supporters of hydropower argue
that energy produced through hydropower is ecologically friendly because it lowers the output of carbon dioxide they forget to mention this side effect. In most of the cases if we would
build new hydropower, whether big or small, we are doing major problems for the biodiversity, for the fisheries, for the quality of the water. I hope that we end that stupidity. The European Union recommends the
development and the use of renewable energy, but more and more Members of Parliament
are becoming aware of hydropower’s negative effects, and increasingly speak up critically towards hydropower. Hydropower cannot solve our energy problems,
especially not the small hydropower plants. The European Water Framework Directive requires
‘good ecological status’ for all waters by 2015. In this context the passability of
running waters has top priority. The increasing numbers and
continued use of hydropower plants comes more and more in conflict
with ecological goals. Hydropower presents a clear example of ambiguity between a renewable energy production form
and environmental protection. If I am correctly informed, there are currently about 7,300 – 7,400 small
hydropower plants in Germany, and about 400 big ones. About 90% of the yield of the power production is generated in the big power plants
– not in the small ones. That means that small hydropower plants, – these are plants that produce
about 20 to 100, maybe 150 kW – when you compare them to the big ones, they are minimal. They contribute an unimportant portion
to the total power production in Germany. If one looks at the whole
power production in Germany, the portion of the small hydropower plants
is estimated at 0.3%. If one visualises what small
hydropower plants produce, then one must also consider what damage
these small hydropower plants create. All in all, the damage done is actually
higher than the advantage. This is a situation that has worried
the federal environment office for many years. If we doubled our portion
of small hydropower production in the whole energy mix from 0.3 to 0.6%,
our remaining rivers would be destroyed, and we would still have made no essential
contribution to climate protection. The energy production from hydropower is
promoted in many European states. In some states the operators
get a guaranteed price. This provides a stable income, and creates the impression that hydropower
is environmentally desired, and is ecologically okay. You get subsidies from making small hydro plants.
That’s absolutely not a wise idea. I wouldn’t build a lot of new hydro in Europe. The potential is not that great, and we shouldn’t go into all our small rivers
and put new hydro stations there. I think it would be much more
environmentally friendly to do wind power and solar heating energy,
and even solar cells in the future. That is probably much more
ecologically efficient. Especially not building many small ones,
because the environmental destruction per kWh is much bigger when you build many
small ones than one big. The consumer price, plus the subsidies we pay
for this kind of power production, is high. The environmental cost is even higher. We do a lot of damage to our river
ecosystems and biodiversity – even risking that some species will disappear
from our planet for good. One day our children, my grandchildren probably,
will read in the newspaper or in books, that there was once a fish similar to snake.
It was called an ‘eel’. We drove it out of our rivers
with hydropower stations. One day it won’t exist anymore. Some eels survive and reproduce
thanks to an unusual strategy. It may sound funny, but
today’s eels travel by car. This is much safer
than taking the river. Their journey is about 150 kilometers,
from the river Main to the river Rhine, which the fish would not survive
without human help. The background story is, that we intercept the eels
in front of the turbines, take them out of the water and
transport them around the turbines, so that they are not injured and
can reach the sea healthy. The river Main has 37 power stations and 37 turbines. Not a single eel would have gotten into the Rhine alive. This is a fact. Almost everybody
who knows about eels knows this. All the fishermen here on the Main river
are faced with bankruptcy. If this project did not exist,
we would all have to give up fishing. Right here, this is a typical turbine injury.
Do you see that? These scratches on the skin – the spine is broken. He will not survive the trip. The lower jaw is smashed. It’s split. And these bright spots in the skin
suggest that he already has several injuries. These are turbine injuries.
He has vertebral fractures inside. There is blood in the fin. This is mechanical damage. The end of the fish bone lies open. The meat is completely scraped off. E.ON, the operator of the hydropower station,
pays for this operation. Maybe they do it to ease a bad conscience?
I don’t know. The alternative would be for E.ON, to open the
weir gates during the journey of the silver eels. Then the eel does not go through the turbine.
The eel always takes the strongest current. – and then the way would be open to the sea. One thing is clear, such a transfer is an exception, considering
the thousands of hydropower plants in Europe. A final solution to the problem
cannot be achieved in this way. I think that the solution must be to oblige,
the hydropower plant operators to perform a considerable and higher
contribution to the protection of the fish and also to the revaluation of the ecosystem. If this is not the case, then
hydropower is not environment-friendly. Since March 2010 the new
Water Resources Act came into effect. This explicitly requires improvements
in the minimum channel flow. Of course this is also a conflict
that has to be solved with the operators, because every drop that does not go through
the turbine but through the main river channel is lost for the electricity generation. The damages are not only confined
to injured fish during migration, damages may extend to kilometers of the river. This affects for example the barbel region,
the grayling region, the lower trout region. These are highly sensitive natural habitats,
not only with endangered fish species but also with endangered
big mussel species, for example. We have the common river mussels, and the
fresh-water pearl mussels in one river system. When you see what kind of damage
small hydropower generation can do in such a stretch of river,
then you can become really fearful when you think of the protection
of endangered species. Precisely this could become
the European eel’s inevitable fate. Its life begins in the Sargasso Sea
off the coast of Florida. As a small larva it travels from there
to the European inland waters, where it remains for 12 to 15 years.
Then it returns to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. – which incidently, it does
only once in its lifetime. Other migrating fish species, like salmon,
reproduce in freshwater, then migrate to salt water at sea, to finally return to the exact spot
where they were born, to spawn. Only that way can they lay their eggs. The survival of these migrating species
is totally dependent on free access to and from the rivers. In Denmark they have completely stopped for all the small hydropower stations
because the damage is too large. If you allow all kinds of farmers
installing in the little rivers, plants that contribute five or ten megawatts, compare that to the 20% renewable energy
we have to realize by year 2020 then really you should reconsider, and see that
this is not the way to do it. One thing is certain, the supply of
worldwide energy faces big challenges. Everywhere one is searching
for clean and safe sources of energy. Energy out of hydropower is often
celebrated as a miracle solution without disadvantages. The problems they cause, however, are hushed up
by the energy providers and suppliers. The energy produced by hydropower
should be submitted to scrutiny. Those who want to use it further must weigh up
very carefully the advantages and disadvantages. And not only for themselves. After all, Europe’s rivers
belong to all of us, and hopefully
many generations to come. With all the money
that E.O.N and LEW earn day after day from the already paid for power stations, it is a ‘no brainer’ they should
do something for the fish, and contribute so also our children
will have an idea how a real river smells, how it looks,
how much life is in it, and how beautiful it is.

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