Agriculture and tourism are threatened as winter drought dries up Lake Montbel in France

By Manuel Ausloos

PARIS (Reuters) – Located at the foot of the Pyrenees, Lake Montbel is famous in south-west France for its turquoise waters, sheer size and thriving aquatic life.

But as spring approaches, the picture-postcard landscape has largely turned into a muddy wasteland, with the local sailing club’s boats stranded on its banks as France’s driest winter in 64 years prevented the lake from filling up.

France, like most of Europe, is being hit by a winter drought, raising concerns about water security across the continent.

For the month of February, the Ariège region, where Lake Montbel is located, suffered from an 80% lack of rainfall.

“We’re currently only at…about 25 percent of maximum fill rate. We’re usually closer to 60 percent fill rate at this time of year,” said Xavier Rouja, who manages the lake’s dam.

The Montbelsee is an artificial lake that extends over 570 hectares and was created in 1985 by the flooding of a former forest area.

The lake, about halfway between Toulouse and Perpignan, was originally created to irrigate the region’s fields, but over time campsites and hiking trails have sprung up along its shores, attracting thousands of tourists each year.

Sailing instructor Claude Carriere walks on the dry bottom of the lake and inspects sailboats stranded a few meters from the water.

His club has had to cancel several competitions since January because the lake’s shrunken surface is no longer suitable for sailing.

“We have a beautiful body of water when it’s full. It’s fabulous. It’s an oasis of calm, a place of leisure and relaxation,” Carriere, who has been a volunteer at the club since the early 2000s, told Reuters.

“When you see it that way, it’s sad. It looks more like a muddy desert than anything else. And that breaks our hearts in a way.”

The club’s management is already attempting to diversify its operations to continue operations through future droughts.

“We have to adapt”

Downstream, farmers are worried about spring and summer.

“Lake Montbel is indeed the income guarantee… If tomorrow we have to go without water, many, many of our farms will collapse and disappear,” said Christophe Mascarenc, head of the regional farmers’ association for irrigation.

Mascarenc uses water from the nearby Ariege River rather than from Lake Montbel. Still, he plans to cut corn production by 50 to 60 percent this year to conserve water.

Others in the region have turned to less water-intensive crops like sorghum, sunflowers and even tangerines.

Authorities are also working on a plan to divert the nearby River Touyre to fill in the lake, although the project has met opposition from environmental groups.

As the effects of global warming intensify in the coming decades, warmer and drier seasons will become more frequent, said Upstream Garonne River Public Interdepartmental Delegation Head Franck Solacroup.

“The Montbel dam is representative of this (water) shortage situation and this filling level, which is anything but optimal at the beginning of the season,” he said.

“In 2022 we really had conditions that will be the norm in 2050 due to climate change… We’re going to have to get used to that and adapt to that.”

(Reporting by Manuel Ausloos and Noemie Olive, Editing by Dominique Vidalon and Alex Richardson)


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