The decreased water level of an artificial reservoir used for production of drinking water is affecting wildlife and recreation activities in the Valparaiso Region; the problem is caused by lack of rain and rising consumption during the spring season.
While several regions of the world (Southeast Asia, Central America) suffer from excessive rainfall and flooding, large areas of central-northern Chile are being affected by drought conditions. In recent years, due to the increased use of water in the upper parts of the city of Valparaiso, especially in the communities of Placilla and Curauma, associated with a reduction in rainwater harvest, the volume in Lake Peñuelas has reached critical levels severely affecting wildlife, ecotourism and recreational activities such as bird-watching, fishing and picnics.
Welcome sign at the Lake Peñuelas National Reserve and World Biosphere Reserve.
Wildfowl used to be abundant at Peñuelas Lake.(Courtesy of G. Espinace)
Peñuelas Lake used to be a very popular fishing place for residents of the Valparaiso region. Most of the water is gone, the fish have nearly disappeared.
Peñuelas Lake is an artificial reservoir located about 20 km from the city of Valparaiso and 100 km from the capital, Santiago de Chile. The reservoir was created in 1900. The objective was to provide potable water to the port of Valparaiso, especially during the summer months.
In 1952, Peñuelas Lake was converted into a National Reserve under the administration of the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF). In 1985, UNESCO declared the area a Biosphere Reserve, which also includes “La Campana” National Park.
Being along the side of the road between Santiago and Valparaiso the Lake is easily accessible and until a few years ago was a place of fishing, recreation and wildlife observation for more than 50 000 domestic visitors and about 1000 foreign tourists a year.
The reserve covers 9260 hectares, of which until recent years about 1200 hs. were occupied by the reservoir surrounded by rolling hills and low rising slopes. Currently only about 200 hectares of water remain.
The adjacent woods have native vegetation and forested areas with introduced trees such as pine and eucalyptus. The reserve is home, feeding area or nesting place for numerous species of water birds (herons, coots, huala ducks, cormorants, and occasionally black-necked swans). Among land animals, there are foxes and coypu castors. There are also reptiles (lizards), large bullfrogs and, until a few years ago, abundance of smelts which supported an active recreational fishery.
Two years ago these areas were covered by water and teeming with aquatic birds.
Digital Journal visited Lake Peñuelas National Reserve and talked with Mr. Federico Johow, Agronomist, representative of Peñuelas Ecotourism Society Ltd. Mr. Johow explained:
"The total capacity of the reservoir is 93 million cubic meters. However, its normal average level is about 30-35 million m3. Currently only contains about 3.3 million m3, or about 3% of its total capacity, but about 10% of its usual level." "It is true that in recent years there has been little rainfall, but an important reason of the reduced volume of water available to sustain the ecosystem of the Peñuelas Natural Reserve is the use of the water resource for drinking water production." said Johow.
A single cormorant dries its wings. Thousands of these birds used to visit the lake to feed on the smelts.
ESVAL, the company which supplies drinking water to the higher parts of Valparaiso, has had to temporarily suspend the use of water from this reservoir and turn to other sources in the region (including the Aconcagua River) to maintain operations and provide the needs of about 260 000 users. The towns of Placilla and Curauma receive water through elevation systems and the use of interconnected ducts from other plants in the Valparaíso region distant from 30 to 100 kilometres. This has required considerable investment, technological adjustments and significant cost increases.
This is the far end of the lake where some water still remains; the birds unfortunately have mostly disappeared.
Since 2007 the main shareholder (69.8%) of ESVAL Company is the Ontario - Canada Teachers' Pension Plan. Due to its high standard of management and the availability of alternative solutions, ESVAL infrastructure withstood the earthquake of February 27, 2009. Just two weeks after the earthquake the water supply to 100% of the users had been restored.
Very little water remains at the Peñuelas Lake National Reserve and UNESCO's Biosphere Reserve.
Peñuelas Lake is supplied only by rainwater. Today, its depth does not exceed 40 centimetres. Aside from the problems and limitations to the utility service company to maintain the supply of quality water to the population, the lack of water has caused the migration of most bird species. The resident population of coots in the lake had been estimated at about 3.000. Now there are very few. The black-necked swans disappeared and smelts are scarce. Fishing, one of its main attractions, is no longer practiced.
The video that follows (“Why Lake Peñuelas is drying?”) is in Spanish, but the images clearly reveal the dramatic status of this important reservoir.