SAINTE-CROIX du VERDON, France — At the pristine southern French lake of Sainte-Croix-du-Verdon, tourists in pedal boats and on white water rafts — and the businesses that welcome them — have been buoyed by generous rainfall and good water management this spring.
After a prolonged drought last summer, then another in the winter that followed, the once cracked lakebeds are now abundantly watered. Dams are releasing water into reservoirs on a consistent schedule for activities in the lake.
But tour operators are still wary.
“Rafting and kayaking is great, but if tomorrow there is not enough water in the river, we will have to reinvent ourselves,” said Antoine Coudray of Secret River Tours, that operates in the gorges of Verdon.
The artificial lake of Sainte-Croix, a bustling tourist attraction, is one of three reservoirs in the area built for 16 hydroelectric dams. The dams supply the southeastern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur with 35% of its electricity needs.
Human-caused climate change is lengthening droughts in southern France, meaning the reservoirs are increasingly drained to lower levels to maintain the power generation and water supply needed for nearby towns and cities. It’s concerning those in the tourism industry, who are working out how to keep their lakeside businesses afloat in the long term if water levels remain low or unpredictable.
The three reservoir lakes in the area — Serre Ponçon, Castillon and Sainte-Croix — quickly became a draw for nature lovers after their construction in the middle of the 20th century. They’re known for their crisp, clear waters in undisturbed valleys surrounded by tall mountains. The region attracts over 4.6 million visitors a year, the bulk of whom flock to the cool lakes during the summer months.
Water levels in the reservoirs are set and managed by national energy giant EDF, which operates the dams.
Last year, the low water levels from a lack of snow and rain in the spring meant the company was forced to draw on the reservoirs to keep hydroelectric power going and water pipes in southern France flowing for drinking and agriculture.
Then it kept getting worse. By August, France’s government warned the country was in the midst of its fourth heat wave that year, further dwindling water supplies that evaporated in the blazing temperatures.
For many in the tourism industry, last year’s low water levels came as a shock.
“In 35 years of working here, I’ve never seen a year like last year. We were not at all prepared,” said Jean-Claude Fraizy who runs a canoe and kayak rental base on the Castillon lake. His leisure center’s sales figures were down by 60% last year.
“If there is no water, there is no desire to come to the lake,” he said.
More shocks could follow. A 32-day long dry spell over winter — the longest in recorded history — means reservoirs still haven’t fully recovered for this summer.
Paul Marquis, founder of meteorology service E-Meteo, said the winter saw 40% less snowfall, keeping water levels below average despite recent rain.
The Serre-Poncon lake reached just 755 meters (2,480 feet) over winter, prompting EDF to hold back its hydroelectric production so that the water level would have a chance of returning to the optimal level of 780 meters (2,560 feet) in time for the summer season, Marquis said.
Marquis added that groundwater in the region will also not replenish fast enough, “meaning that we could see water restrictions come in to place during the summer.”
Touring companies are already preparing.
“These days we have to be conscious that there will be less and less water in the river for us, so we have to know how to adapt,” said Coudray. He’s introduced “drought-proof” packrafting into the region over the past of couple of years, where the inflatable bottom allows it to float in much shallower waters in the Gorges du Verdon.
Guillaume Requena, a tour guide at the company Aquabond Rafting, said they have started to offer tubing, another activity that works on lower water levels as they can float along the surface.
Wary of the spring rains being a temporary blip in the longer-term trend toward drier conditions, Requena knows tour companies need to find a longer term solution and try to ensure that water levels in the reservoirs can be maintained.
“All of the actors affected by how the water is managed in the region by EDF will have to keep negotiating at the table for their own interests as a changing climate adds more pressure,” he said.
But with so many people reliant on the dams for power and water in the cities and towns below, Requena is all too aware that propping up the lakes’ tourism industry is further down on the priority list.
“It is not necessarily the twenty or so rafting businesses who have the final say in the management of water resources,” said Requena. “In many ways we are the last wheel on this wagon.”
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