On the pristine French lake of Sainte-Croix-du-Verdon in southern France, tourists on paddleboats and rafts — and the businesses that host them — were buoyed by generous rainfall and good water management this spring.
After a prolonged drought last summer, followed by another the following winter, lake beds, once cracked, are now abundantly watered. Dams are releasing water into reservoirs on a consistent schedule for activities on the lake.
But tour operators are still cautious.
“Rafting and kayaking are great, but if tomorrow there’s not enough water in the river, we’re going to have to reinvent ourselves,” said Antoine Coudray of Secret River Tours, which operates in the Verdon canyons.
The artificial lake of Sainte-Croix, a busy tourist attraction, is one of three reservoirs in the area built for 16 hydroelectric dams. Dams supply the southeastern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region with 35% of its electricity needs.
Man-made climate change is prolonging droughts in southern France, meaning reservoirs are increasingly being drained to lower levels to maintain the power generation and water supply needed by nearby cities. It is concerning for tourism industry professionals, who are working to maintain their lakefront businesses for the long term if water levels remain low or unpredictable.
The region’s three reservoir lakes – Serre Ponçon, Castillon and Sainte-Croix – quickly became a draw for nature lovers after their construction in the mid-20th century.
They are known for their crystal clear waters in unspoiled valleys surrounded by high mountains. The region attracts over 4.6 million visitors a year, most 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, low water levels due to lack of snow and rain in spring forced the company to turn to reservoirs to keep hydroelectric power running and water pipes in southern France flowing for drinking and agriculture.
Then it got worse. In August, France’s government warned that the country was in the midst of its fourth heat wave of the year, further eroding water supplies that had evaporated in scorching 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 weren’t prepared at all,” said Jean-Claude Fraizy, who runs a canoe and kayak rental base on Lake Castillon. Sales at its leisure center dropped 60% last year.
“If there is no water, there is no desire to come to the lake,” he said.
More shocks could happen. A 32-day dry spell during the winter – the longest in recorded history – means that reservoirs have yet to fully recover for this summer.
Paul Marquis, founder of weather service E-Meteo, said the winter had seen 40% less snow, keeping water levels below average despite recent rains.
Lake Serre-Poncon only reached 755 meters in winter, prompting the EDF to curb its hydroelectric output so that the water level had a chance to return to an ideal level of 780 meters in time for the summer season, Marquis said.
Marquis added that groundwater in the region will also not be replenished quickly enough, “which means we could see water restrictions during the summer.”
Tourism companies are already preparing.
“Today we have to be aware that there will be less and less water in the river for us, so we have to know how to adapt”, said Coudray. He has introduced “drought-proof” packrafting to the region over the past two years, where the inflatable bottom allows him to float in much shallower water in the Gorges du Verdon.
Guillaume Requena, tour guide for the company Aquabond Rafting, said they have started offering tubing, another activity that works in lower waters as they can float on the surface.
Worried that the spring rains are a temporary blip in the long-term trend towards drier conditions, Requena knows that tourism companies need to find a longer-term solution and try to ensure that water levels in the reservoirs can be maintained. .
“All actors affected by the way water is managed by EDF in the region will have to continue negotiating at the table for their own interests as climate change adds to the pressure,” he said.
But with so many people depending on the dams for power and water in the towns and villages below, Requena is aware that supporting the lakes’ tourism industry is lower on the priority list.
“It’s not necessarily the twenty or so rafting companies that have the final say in managing water resources,” said Requena. “In many ways, we are the last wheel on this wagon.”
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