French Dam Removal Opens Way for Atlantic Salmon

Guo Xin
Monday, March 5, 2012

The Poutès Dam has devastated salmon runs.
The Poutès Dam has devastated salmon runs.

The Allier, main tributary of the river Loire, is among the last wild rivers in Europe. The river and its watershed shelter extraordinary fauna and flora due to the geologic complexity of the mountainous Massif-Central through which it flows.

An indispensable part of the river’s treasure includes wild Atlantic salmon, a unique symbol and store of genetic diversity that will provide a base from which to restore diminishing salmon runs in other major rivers of Western Europe. In the 20th century, Atlantic salmon suffered a tragic decline, starting with the construction of Saint-Etienne du Vigan Dam (built in 1895, dismantled in 1998) and accelerated by the Poutès Dam in 1941. According to the French river activist group SOS Loire Vivante, the Poutès Dam, whose construction was driven by excessive energy demand stemming from World War II, is responsible for 90% of the loss of Atlantic salmon in the Loire region.

Decades-long Campaign

Fishermen along the Allier geared up an anti-dam campaign from the end of the war. It was not until 1986, however, that the first environmentally conscious initiative was undertaken by the dam’s owner and builder, Electricité de France (EDF). They equipped the dam with a fish passage structure designed to allow the salmon to migrate upstream.

Only around 10% of the precious salmon passed through the elevator, however. In recent years, the government, EDF and civil society came together at the same table to discuss how to set the river free.

Dismantling the two dams on the upper Loire was deemed the priority for restoring the Atlantic salmon runs in France. After the ambitious “Plan Loire Grandeur Nature” was launched by the French government, a powerful explosion in 1998 marked the nation’s first effort to re-open one of the largest spawning grounds for Atlantic salmon. It was indeed “un rayon de soleil” (a beam of sunshine) for river activists. Over several years, the NGOs allied with both fisheries associations and institutes in a common goal of saving salmon species: brochures, round tables, exchanges with the European Union as well as national leaders paved the route forward for restoring the Allier as well. A petition was launched by WWF France and Nature & Découvertes in 2004. “10 good reasons for Poutès Dam Removal” were communicated to the public in a sincere and amiable way. After this petition, WWF engaged in a research effort entitled “Tomorrow’s Energy,” a plan that envisaged alternative energy sources to replace the dam’s production.

Innovative Solutions for Mutual Benefit

EDF at first was hesitant, and made an unsatisfying proposal in April 2011 to replace the dam with a 3-5 meters high permanent dam. This proposal was immediately rejected by the NGOs. EDF soon realized, however, that it was at risk of having the renewal application for its operating license rejected. Eventually, the company compromised – agreeing in October 2011 to” decommission the dam and build a replacement of 0-4 meters. The barrier can be removed, and will significantly reduce the area of the reservoir: instead of 3700 meters (a size that is a major threat for salmon lifecycle), the length of the new reservoir will be 350 meters. The project cost approximately 10 millions euros.

The marvelous news was welcomed by NGOs, fishermen, scientists and elected officials who had campaigned for 20 years to remove the Poutès. Nathalie Kosciusko Morizet, Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development, announced the formal dismantlement of the dam. The activists were in the mood to pop open the champagne themselves; they gathered riverside to share the victory with the Allier and its precious inhabitants.

A Successful French Model of NGO Mobilization

Although it has been a long, winding road, the French NGOs remain strategic, cooperative and mobilized in the campaign. The activists attracted the Allier fishermen as their first partners in the campaign to protect Atlantic salmon. Most significantly, the activists proposed thriving projects of tourism and renewable energy along the valley that compensates the loss of Poutès electricity production. The projects coincide with government initiatives.

The next challenge facing the French NGOs is to improve the water quality in the Allier/Loire region. It is up to the salmon to once again repopulate the river once the dam is down. Drawings of salmon were found on cave drawings in France that date to 25,000 years ago. French activists are working hard to ensure this iconic species will not disappear.

The author holds a master’s degree in NGO Management in EDHEC France and has been volunteering for International River from Paris for two years.