Italy’s largest river is already as low as it was last summer, and the winter snowfields that normally keep it from drying out in the warmer months have fallen by 75%, according to the Bolzano Climate and Environment Agency.
It’s already causing some to rely on the butt to correct course.
“In a few days I’ll have to cancel all bookings for our Po cruises because of the shallow waters,” said Captain Giuliano Landini, shaking his head, arms outstretched on the command deck of the Stradivari ship docked under the Boretto bridge and surrounded by long ones sandy beaches.
Its 60-meter (196-foot) vessel used to carry up to 400 people even in shallow waters, but the river’s flow rate is only 350 cubic meters (92,000 gallons) per second, the lowest since last June, when conditions were among the hottest and driest in 70 years.
Navigation will soon become impossible unless copious rain arrives soon.
Flowing from the northwestern city of Turin to Venice on the east coast, the 652-kilometer Po River traverses Italy’s most densely populated, highly industrialized and most intensively farmed part of the country, known as the Italian Food Valley.
It is home to fishermen and boats, nourishes rich farmland, powers turbines and quenches local populations on its shores and in the delta. The water also keeps tourism alive, with world-famous lakes like Garda and Como crammed each year by millions of international holidaymakers who love to enjoy fresh, clear water, art and good food. Those who rely on it often have conflicting priorities and must look for alternative, water-saving plans.
As a child, Landini learned to swim and steer a boat on the Po River.
“I was born on the river, it used to be so lively, full of fishermen, and now, in a few years, we risk only having a dirt highway, the sandy banks of the river are getting closer and closer to his ship.
In early April, the river level hit a 30-year seasonal low, with flow rates a third of the seasonal average, according to the Po River Basin Authority. The surrounding Alps experienced an unusually dry and warm winter and therefore lack the snow reserves that would normally have fed the Po and various other tributaries in southern and western Europe in late spring and summer to meet the high water demands for irrigation, drinking water and water supply power generation.
Beneath the once-heavy snow-capped peaks are natural and artificial lakes that are already 30% below the seasonal average, with snow cover 75% below the 10-year seasonal average, explained Flavio Ruffini, director of the Bolzano Provincial Climate and Environment Agency .
The alpine lakes in the province of Bolzano store on average about 100 million liters of water, but the current level barely reaches 42 million liters (11 million gallons) after the dry winter. Alpine lakes are essential to the summer survival of Italian rivers.
The lakes have dried up so much that an old tower reappears from the bottom of the artificial Lake Vernago, while the old bell tower of the now sunken village of Graun im Vinschgau stands higher than usual in Lake Reschen.
On the banks of the Adige River in northern Trento, the water also has a flow rate half the seasonal average.
The low water levels are allowing the Adriatic Sea to seep tens of kilometers (miles) up the Po and Adige rivers, threatening crops, shellfish farms, aquifers and even the drinking water of some villages.
Man-made climate change is partly to blame: warmer temperatures melt snow and more water evaporates into the air. It can make droughts longer, more intense, and more frequent.
The Italian government has not yet appointed the Extraordinary Commissioner to mediate between the downstream and upstream regions and between the citizens who pay for drinking water, agriculture, hydroelectric power and tourism.
Local and national authorities will soon be faced with draconian decisions about possible water rationing and avoiding water wars between different Italian regions if rain doesn’t come soon.
“Italy is very good at dealing with emergencies, but pretty bad at planning,” said Alessandro Bratti, Secretary General of the Po Authority. “There is nothing in the drought decree recently issued by the government, there is no multi-year planning, there are no implementing infrastructure projects.”
Saltwater intrusion could be stemmed by salt barriers, but the Po Basin Authority only recently secured funding for a project on the delta’s Pila arm, and it will take years, if not decades, to lay the groundwork.
But Italian farmers are not waiting for an official response to the dry conditions. Many invest in precision irrigation to conserve water during the hottest months of the year.
Probes that monitor the sap directly in tree trunks, drones that record the amount of water in the leaves, aerial and underground drip irrigation and mobile applications bring water savings of up to 70% compared to the wasteful irrigation method.
“Trees go on standby when it’s too hot, no matter how much water you pour on them,” said farmer Monica Gilli. She recalled last year’s struggle to keep the pear field alive and productive at Pascolone farm near Bologna, when the temperature frequently topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and gave them no relief even at night.
The Pascolone farm now uses drip irrigation methods that allow water to percolate at slower rates, and the help of Irriframe, a public and free internet portal that analyzes weather data, underground moisture probes and water levels, and gives precise details of where, when and how much water must be poured on the fields.
“With technology and the internet, we have halved our water needs,” said Simone Cocchi, owner of Farm Pascolone, “but we have also achieved the goal of neither stressing nor overwatering the plants. The only problem is that these tools are very expensive.”
While the Irriframe software is free, the sensors are not.
The most expensive tool they use are the juice sensors, which measure flow and cost about 50 euros ($55) per probe. While drip irrigation is cheaper, installing it along a row of 250 trees can cost as much as 1,000 euros ($1,100), not including labor costs.
Nevertheless, the Acqua Campus research center estimates that 72% of farmers in Emilia Romagna are subscribed to the Irriframe open portal, which means that 185,000 hectares out of a total of 257,000 irrigated hectares in the region are irrigated with precision irrigation data.
In Italy, 16 regions use Irriframe weather, humidity and satellite data, totaling 7 million hectares of irrigated land.
But despite all the water-saving improvements made by farmers, the region will still struggle if the rains don’t come.
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