Thursday, November 23, 2006

Save the Rio Futaleufu!

By: Christina Russell

A sunny day on the Rio Futaleufu
Photo courtesy of Jason Bates

This spring I traveled South to Chile for some good ol’ whitewater kayak training with the New River Academy. While in Chile, I stayed at the surf- town of Pichilemu, Pucon -“the Hollywood of Chile”, and lastly-the Rio Futaleufu. To get to the Futa, you have to take a twelve hour, overnight ferry ride from Puerto Montt, rent a bus from Chaiten, and drive two hours down a windy, gravel road….with lots of potholes. Emphasis on LOTS. Watch out for roaming cows in the road and avoid driving off a cliff.

Chileans refer to the area of Patagonia as a country all its own. Glacier capped peaks surrounded my campsite on the Rio Futaleufu where I stayed for roughly two weeks. Futaleufu is a Mapuche (Indian) word meaning “grand grand waters”. It was first discovered in the 1980’s by kayaking enthusiasts based on the Bio Bio River. The headwaters of the Futa are in Argentina’s Los Alerces National Park. The river contains some of the world’s best “big-water” paddling and each year thousands of tourists flock to Patagonia to experience the thrill of the river. Some call it the Grand Canyon of the Southern Hemisphere. My group and I paddled every section, from the Class five Inferno Canyon to the mellower class three rapids that flowed past the campsite.

Photo by: Christina Russell

Alex Mohn workin' the Vision 44
Photo by: Christina Russell

Me surfin' on Disco Biscuit :D
Photo by: Jason Bates I am photographing Mundaca....a HUGE breaking wave/hole/thing....
Photo by: Jason Bates

The Old Indian in the rock...
Photo by: Christina Russell

Mark P. scouting Class V Terminator Rapid
Photo by: Christina Russell

What most people don’t know is that the river might not be around for much longer. Towards the end of my stay, I sat down to talk with the head of the environmental organization known as FutaFriends. It is a non-profit group that focuses on the preservation of the Rio Futaleufu.

So here’s the scoop:

The company known as Endesa: Empresa Nacional Developmente Energie Societe Anonyme, based out of Santiago, has had its eyes on the Futaleufu valley for some time now. High-volume rivers such as the Futa are quite attractive to hydro-electric companies. In 1994, Endesa proposed the building of dams on the Futaleufu. This was met with resistance from farmers, ranchers, and Futa Friends. They successfully fended off Endesa-yet only temporarily.

In 2004, the company returned and announced its plans to build once again. Over the ten year construction hiatus, Endesa secured the water rights (in 1998) in the Futaleufu Valley through judicial avenues. If all goes according to plan, three power-stations will be constructed on the Rio Futaleufu. The project is scheduled to begin within the next ten years. It will produce an estimated 12,000 Mega Watts (Compared to 2800 MW from two dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers). This is enough power to easily replace the electric system currently in place in Chile and aid Argentina in its electrical shortage.

Endesa believes that water is Chile’s “oil”. However, by damming the Futaleufu, one of Chile’s most beautiful and cherished rivers, will be destroyed forever. Thousands of Chileans who have called the Futaleufu Valley home for hundreds of years will be displaced and out of work. Most locals believe that the implementation of dams will bring jobs and capital…wrong. Endesa has no plans to employ locals, but rather workers from Santiago with experience in dam construction and maintenance.

Not only will the people suffer, but the environment will as well. Power lines must be erected from the River to Puerto Montt- hundreds of miles away which creates substantial environmental destruction and disruption. It requires extensive forest clearing and road construction. The river will be transformed into a lake miles long. If Chile allows the damming of the grand Futaleufu, it’s only a matter of time before more damming projects are legalized in Chile and elsewhere in South America. Currently there are 31 other rivers in Chile on the list for proposed damming- most of which, if allowed, would be constructed within the next ten years.

It is an interesting predicament: Save a part of Chile that is in essence, the spirit of Patagonia, or make money and energy? Odds are not in favor of saving the Futaleufu.

Most argue that these affects are worth the payoff- energy. Energy is needed in the country but there are alternative methods of obtaining it. Wind farms for example could be implemented of the coast. Patagonia, after all, is one of the windiest and stormiest areas in Chile. Why not harness it?

Having read this article, you can make a choice: Do nothing, or decide this is something worth protecting. It is extremely difficult to find more information on this project as Endesa has done a fantastic job of hiding their plans. If you are interested in learning more or helping prevent this, visit . The best thing you can do now is tell your friends and make others aware of this issue. Save the Futaleufu and help save the rivers of Chile!

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