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Storm over the Rio Baker

Yes, our project is focused on the changes happening in glaciers and alpine ecosystems due to global climate change.  This is the core of what we do, but the reason why most people really care about this is the effects it has on populations.  As our climate changes it will cause dramatic and unpredictable hydrological, social, and ecological changes.  The Rio Baker in the Aysen region of Chile is a focal point for all of these issues. 

The Baker River, the largest river in Chile by volume, flows out of Lago General Carrera.  Fed by glacial melt coming off the Northern Patagonia Ice Field, the second largest ice mass outside of the polar regions, it winds down through lakes and valleys before flowing into the ocean in the town of Tortel.  The controversy surrounds a project to build five hydroelectric dams by the multinational power company hidroAysen on this river, and a subsequent 1,200 miles of high-voltage power lines necessary to distribute the power up to Santiago, Chile.

In this process, we are trying to not take the role of advocates against the dams.  We are hoping to understand this controversy better and be able to share the realities of what this means for the river ecosystem and for the communities involved in this.  To see more photos visit our gallery on Facebook.From talking to people in the area there is a strong division between the people who support that construction of the dams and those who are opposed.  Because the Chilean economy and education systems are highly privatized, many families have trouble affording education for their children or being able to make a living in these rural areas.  When hidroAyisen offers them $400,000 US or more to buy their land to put a power line across it, few people can afford not to take that offer.  At the same time many people see the potential to work building the dams, roads, power lines, and other infrastructure that will accompany this project and see it as a much needed boost to the local economy.  To continue growing its economy, particularly the highly lucrative copper mining in the north, Chile believes it will need to double it’s energy capacity in the next 15 years.  The hidroAysen project would supply 35% of the current total energy capacity of Chile, and would help reduce the dependence on neighboring Argenitna for natural gas imports.

The people who oppose it say it will destroy the things that make this remote area of Patagonia special and worth living in or visiting.  Because the hydroelectric companies own a significant portion of the total water rights to the Baker River, many farmers will no longer be allowed to irrigate their land if hydroAysen actually claims their water rights.  Furthermore, if they are able to secure the right of way for the 1,200 miles of power lines, the rights to cut the trees and the mineral rights underneath will be allocated to other companies to develop creating one of the largest single clear-cuts in the world.  For the local guides who run rafting trips on this spectacular section of the Baker River, they will have to switch to kayaking on a lake as the upper Baker River dam site will inundate these popular class IV and V rapids.

If this wasn’t enough, the biggest problem is that hydroAysen has not studied the volatility of the upstream glaciers at all.  The Colonia Glacier flows off the Northern Patagonia Ice Field and blocks the flow of a small river.  This creates a natural dam of ice.  When the lake fills up and builds up enough pressure it breaks through the ice holding it back releasing a flood of water down towards the Baker River.  As the Colonia Glacier retreats due to global warming these floods, called Glacier Lake Outburst Floods or GLOF’s, are only expected to get bigger.  Not only would these contribute to filling the downstream reservoirs with sediments very rapidly, if one of these GLOF’s caused a failure of a dam on the Baker River the flood would completely wipe out many homes, including the entire town of Tortel.

As it currently stands, the construction of these dams has been approved by the Chilean government, but are being held up by a case in the supreme court.  A decision is expected on this in the next few months.  What does the future hold for these dams?  No one really seems to have any idea what the ultimate decision will be, but we will continue talking to people and learning more about this.  If a decision is made we can only hope it will be well informed.

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