The river Ţjórsá is the natural habitat of a large population of wild salmon. Iceland’s Institute of Freshwater Fisheries along with unbiased fishery experts have voiced concerns about the impact of proposed power projects in the river on local wildlife, especially migratory fish stocks such as salmon and trout. Landsvirkjun has proposed the construction of a 140 MW power plant at Urriđafoss waterfall. The realization of this proposal would greatly diminish the flow of the waterfall, to the extent that it might nearly disappear.
Urriđafoss Power Plant
- Urriđafoss Power Plant
The River Ţjórsá
Landsvirkjun has proposed to construct three power plants in the river Ţjórsá. Originally, all electricity produced at these power plants was to be sold to Rio Tinto Alcan Iceland Ltd. for the projected extensions of the Straumsvík Aluminum Plant. In a referendum on the proposed extension in 2007, the citizens of Hafnarfjörđur township rejected the proposals, and since then, Landsvirkjun has tried to engage other possible buyers for this energy. One example is the proposed aluminum plant in Helgavík, but permission for its construction has as of yet not been granted. There is a further proposal for a river diversion – the Norđlingaalda diversion – 8 km downstream from the Ţjórsárver natural reserve, but this proposal has been classified protected. Nearby, in the river Tungnaá, proposals for the Búđarháls power plant have been given the green light and classified as exploitable.
The three proposed power plants in the lower reaches of the river Ţjórsá, namely Hvammur Power Plant, Holt Power Plant and Urriđafoss Power Plant, are currently all classified as awaiting further assessment according to the Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources. In the initial phase of the Master Plan, all three were classified as exploitable, but in the spring of 2012 when the Master Plan was ratified by parliament, it was decided to reclassify the proposals as awaiting further assessment, and to have the matter looked into more closely before reaching a decision.
Landsvirkjun‘s plans for harnessing the river Ţjórsá have caused a great deal of division and disputes among the inhabitants of the river‘s surrounding areas. In some cases, entire families have become divided because of the issue, and the communal spirit in these communities has suffered.
Power plant construction would endanger the area‘s natural beauty and disrupt the river‘s harmonious environs.
Three waterfalls in the river would be destroyed, namely Búđi, Hestfoss and Urriđafoss. The waterfalls would be forever silenced, thus greatly altering the experience of visiting the area. Since time immemorial, people have listened to the sound of the river Ţjórsá, for example at Búđi waterfall and the Núpsflúđir rapids, to make weather predictions – and they continue to do so today.
Great disruption could also be caused to the river‘s unique ecosystem, and the risk of erosion and dust pollution would be greatly increased due to the river bed partially drying up from diminished water flow.
In addition, construction would take place near the country‘s most productive agricultural region and in the immediate vicinity of inhabited areas. Agricultural land would be lost to reservoirs, roads and other construction in relation to the power plants.
The river Ţjórsá has a large population of wild salmon, and every year more than 7000 salmon return to the river on their migrations. In addition, all species of Icelandic freshwater fish make the river their home.
If plans for the Urriđafoss Power Plant are realised, the river‘s fish stocks are likely to be devastated despite proposed counteractive measures.
In the Master Plan‘s environmental assessments, no attempt is made to evaluate whether these counteractive measures would be of use, but examples from other countries show that in some cases 85-95% of fish populations have been wiped out, either immediately or later (a phenomenon known as delayed mortality).
Dr. Margaret J. Filardo, professor of biology and director of the Fish Passage Center in Oregon, U.S.A., said in an interview on Icelandic State Television (RÚV) on November 4, 2011, that construction of the Urriđafoss Power Plant could have a very negative effect on fish in the river.
In a talk given by Dr. Filardo in Iceland the same month, she pointed out that dams and power plants caused great disruption to the waterways of rivers, and as a result great damage was caused to wildlife, often with unforeseen consequences. Dr. Filardo said that she considered this likely to occur at Urriđafoss. She also pointed out that conditions in the Columbia River were similar to those in the river Ţjórsá.
Landsvirkjun plans to implement counteractive measures by building fish ladders by the side of the dam to enable the salmon to continue their run up the river. Dr. Filardo says such contraptions are of little use and points to research indicating that in the long run fish populations die out nevertheless.
Photo © Jóhann Ísberg
Here the farmer at Urriđafoss holds up one of the thousands of salmon caught in the river Ţjórsá every year. Fishing is a significant source of income for the inhabitants of the area.
According to ichthyologist Magnús Jóhannsson at Iceland‘s Institute of Freshwater Fisheries, 8990 salmon were caught in the river Ţjórsá in 2010, with this number rising to 9217 if fishing in the river‘s tributaries is included. This accounted for 17% of all wild salmon caught in Iceland in 2010. Additionally, 336 brown trout were caught in nets and 719 by rod.
If plans for power plants in the lower reaches of the river Ţjórsá go ahead, especially Urriđafoss Power Plant, fish stocks are highly likely to be devastated, especially in the case of migratory fish, such as salmon and trout.
Plans for the Urriđafoss Power Plant envisage a dam just above the current old bridge across the river, creating a reservoir with an area of approximately 8 km˛. The reservoir will be fairly shallow, making it necessary to pump out sediment once every 5 years or so. Meadows and pastures of several neighboring farms will be affected by construction. Proposed power output is 140 MW.