The proposed Búland Power Plant would be located in an area of breathtaking and varied landscape. It is furthermore a popular spot for outdoor activities. Ófćrufoss waterfall, which once boasted a naturally formed bridge over the lower part of the waterfall, falls into the Eldgjá ravine, and it is in the immediate vicinity of this ravine that Suđurorka Ltd. plans the construction of the power plant. The ravine forms part of a 40 km fissure that bears witness to volcanic activity in the modern era.
Búland Power Plant
- Búland Power Plant
The drainage basin of the river Skaftá presents a varied range of natural scenery extending to the area between Lake Langisjór and the coast by the delta of the river Kúđafljót. The area can without reservation be considered of primary importance in Iceland in terms of nature, scenery and natural expanses.
Among its natural wonders, the area counts glaciers, glacial rivers and sands, spring creeks, manifold unusual lava formations, large lava fields, one of Iceland‘s most beautiful mountain lakes, canyons, and vegetated plateaus stretching far inland. Plentiful natural springs are found in residential areas, and large, relatively untouched wetland areas still remain. In Skaftártunga, bushes grow and there is a small forest.
Few areas have witnessed geological events having such a profound effect on the local population. The Skaftáreldar volcanic eruption and the subsequent years of hardship (known in Iceland as "Móđuharđindin", literally the "hardships of the great smog") caused the most devastating famine in Icelandic history, and nowhere more severe than in Eldsveitir. The history of habitation above the Highland line is interesting, and local folklore speaks of an ancient community at Tólfahringur far inland along the river Skaftá, which Jón Steingrímsson (the "fire priest") says was deserted long before his day (late 18th century). The northern Fjallabak highland route and the older route north of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, sometimes referred to as the southern Fjallabak route, both ended at Skaftártunga. At nearby Svartinúpur can be found the last of almost nine hundred cairns that in ancient times marked the Fjallabak route from the river Ţjórsá in the west.
The area is abovel all characterized by volcanic activity, probably the most volatile in all Iceland, and one that has been completely transformed since human habitation in Iceland began.
The two greatest lava flows known in human history occurred here, at Eldgjá in 934 and in the Skaftáreldar eruption of 1783-1784.
The tuff ridges at Lake Langisjór are widely considered to be the most spectacular examples of lava formations in Iceland, and in the world, as tuff ridges are not known elsewhere.
The Eldgjá rift can rightly be called one of Iceland‘s wonders, a volcanic fissure and caldera that is visible along a 40 km stretch, reaching all the way from the Vatnajökull ice cap south to the Mýrdalsjökull glacier where it disappears under the glacier.
The Lakagígar craters are also a spectacular example of nature‘s forces at play. Pseudocraters located just east of the main craters at Laki are considered unique in formation, and at Landbrot in the lowlands, a further cluster of hundreds of greyish-green pseudocraters dominates the landscape.
Unusual ecosystems have evolved in the Skaftáreldar lava fields, some of which may be found nowhere else worldwide.
In the lowland areas, the lava fields are covered in an uninterrupted thick layer of moss, where racomitrium moss predominates and in places is the sole moss species. Moss grows similarly in lava fields in several places in Iceland, especially in the south, but nowhere as abundantly as in the Skaftáreldar lava fields.
The Eldhraun lava field, now covered in racomitrium moss, is witnessing very interesting developments in its vegetation, and both the Icelandic Institute of Natural History and the Environment Agency of Iceland have proposed that the area be protected.
In the highland areas, moss is not as predominant and shares its habitat with a grey, branchy Stereocaulon vesuvianum lichen. The area‘s ecosystem is classified as stereocaulon lava heath, and considered extremely rare in other parts of the world. Vigorous plantlife grows much further inland on the plateaus than current human habitation, at times reaching altitudes of over 500 m above sea level.
It is in fact remarkable how such large areas of vegetation have managed to thrive despite the great natural calamities that have repeatedly struck the area, not only during the volcanic eruptions in Eldgjá and during the Skaftáreldar, but also volcanic activity in Mount Katla, Grímsvötn and possibly other volcanoes along the edge of the Vatnajökull ice cap. The area‘s abundant rainfall and relatively mild climate are most likely the major factors to allow vegetation to thrive.
Wind erosion has caused great accumulations of soil from other parts in the the area. In many places, the soil layer is of great thickness and deep ravines form in the hillsides. However, most of these ravines support vegetation.
Freshwater springs can be found at the edge of the Eldhraun lava field. The streams Grenlćkur og Tungulćkur originate at the eastern edge of the lava field. They are two of the most popular rivers in Iceland for trout angling, and as such a valuable resource. The spring creeks at Botnar in Međalland rank fifth or sixth among Iceland‘s major spring areas.
The drainage basin of the river Skaftá supports a great deal of bird and animal wildlife. The area‘s wetlands, for example, are on the international list of Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and constitute one of the major wetlands in Scandinavia.
It is also worth noting that the species Crangonyx islandicus thrives in the area. This species is unique to Iceland‘s volcanic belt, and cannot be found in other parts of the world.
Power plant construction would have an impact on water flow in the Eldhraun lava field, and affect plans for its conservation. Water flow in the river Tungufljót would be greatly diminished with unforeseeable consequences for the river‘s fish populations.
Photo © Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson
The area‘s landscape and vast natural expanses are of great importance. The scenery possesses a unique and arresting beauty characterized by unusual forms and colors, and the area is a popular tourist destination with great potential for development. Lake Langisjór is a clear mountain lake, but there was a period in the 19th century when the river Skaftá fed into the lake, coloring its waters.
One of Iceland‘s major natural spring areas is to be found within the drainage basin of the river Skaftá, at Eldvatn in Međalland. There are theories that around a fourth of the water that surfaces in the springs near the Eldhraun lava field comes from groundwater sources connected to the river Skaftá at the old Skaftárgljúfur canyon in Skaftárdalur valley.
According to chemical analyses carried out on samples of the area‘s groundwater, three sources of groundwater converge there; glacial runoff from Skaftárkatlar, water from the deeper recesses of the Skaftárkatlar area, and precipitation from the area southeast of the river Skaftá. It is difficult to predict what impact power plant construction in the area would have on the groundwater system.
The proposed Búland Power Plant would have a widespread visual impact on surrounding landscapes. Its construction would radically transform popular tourist areas by the river Skaftá, submerge a valley green with vegetation, and all but destroy the river Tungufljót. Should the natural springs at Međalland and Landbrot be affected, the visual impact of the project would extend even further.
Suđurorka plans to construct the 150 MW Búland Power Plant in the river Skaftá.
The project would entail damming the river Skaftá at an altitude of 319 m above sea level, close to Hólaskjól, where hiking facilities make the area a popular tourist destination in summer. The dam would be built straight across the current river course, and water from both the river Skaftá and the spring creek Syđri-Ófćra would be diverted south via a tunnel into a shallow valley at Kálfasléttur, or at Ţorsvaldsaurar. A 9-10 km˛ reservoir would be created there. Station facilities would be located at the southeast end of the reservoir, and from there water would be diverted via another tunnel southeast back to the riverbed of the river Skaftá at the end of Skálarheiđi heath, near the farm Búland which lends its name to the project.
The power plant would in many ways be operationally cumbersome, and for a plant of its size, the environmental impact would be great and far-reaching. There is considerable uncertainty about indirect environmental consequences that might prove more serious and widespread than expected.
Arguments against power plant construction
Three rivers in the area would be affected
Construction of the Búland Power Plant would have an impact on three rivers; the river Skaftá itself, the spring creek Syđri-Ófćra, and the river Tungufljót. Skaftá would be diverted from its course at Hólaskjóli and diverted back at Búland, leaving a 14-15 km stretch of the riverbed nearly or completely dry. Construction would also affect the river Syđri-Ófćra, which would be dammed just above its confluence with the river Skaftá. The river Tungufljót would be dammed in the Rásgljúfur canyon and the Ţorvaldsaurar reservoir would be located around its course. The volume of Tungufljót as it flows into the river Kúđafljót would decrease by 50%, and the river would virtually cease to exist in its present form.
Dams and other structures would be built
Construction of the Búland Power Plant would entail the construction of a number of structures and consequent disruption to the area. A new dam would cut across the river Skaftá just above Hjólaskjól. There the river flows across broad mudflats surrounded by moss-grown lava fields and varied scenery. The dam would be about 2.5 km long and 68 m high at its highest point, making it highly conspicuous from surrounding areas, such as the popular tourist spot east of Eldgjá canyon where hikers stop to admire the view on their way down from the Fjallabak overland route. Above the dam, a 2 km rampart is to be built along the course of the river Skaftá, perpendicular to the dam. The road down from Fjallabak joins this stretch of the river, and spring creeks emerge from surrounding moss-grown lava fields to flow into the glacial river. The area is indeed a hidden gem enjoyed and photographed by passing travelers, but would be entirely transformed by power plant construction. A fairly large (approx. 10 km˛) but shallow reservoir would be created in the low and wide valley around the river Tungnaá. This valley, currently named after Ţorvaldsaurar in project reports, is almost entirely covered in vegetation. A diversion channel and rampart are to be built where the water of the river Skaftá is rediverted to its course, along with a further dam to divert the water further eastward, along the course of Skaftá along Síđuheiđar. New roads and pathways would be constructed around the dam, south of the dam at Ţorvaldsaurar, and in the area around and north of Búland.
Operational complexities would occur
Complications in the operation of the plant are foreseen. Skaftárkatlar are two geothermal cauldrons in the western Vatnajökull ice cap that empty every year or two, causing flooding in the river Skaftá. The floods carry vast amounts of outwash that must not be allowed to accumulate in the reservoir or get into the turbines of the power plant. The river Skaftá is therefore to be rediverted to its normal course, away from the power plant, during these floodings. The central section of the Skaftá dam is to be equipped with rubber valves that can be lowered to let flood water through, but after the flood they would be reinflated to the full height of the dam. No information or research has been published as to where and how far mud deposits will be carried in the floods, nor have assessments been carried out concerning soil erosion in the 15 km stretch of the Skaftá river bed that will be left nearly dry after the construction of the power plant.
It is easily foreseeable that mud will accumulate above the Skaftá dam, but no assessment has been carried out to calculate the rate of accumulation or to clarify how this mud is to be removed and disposed of.
Numerous waterfalls would dry up
The flow of the river Skaftá below the dam would change and numerous waterfalls in the vicinity of Skaftárdalur valley would mostly dry up. This would most likely reduce the amount of sediment carried out to sea, whereas more sediment would be left behind, and sandstorms would become more frequent during the winter months.
Sandstorms and other environmental impact
There is much uncertainty about the possible environmental impact of the power plant, e.g. considerable uncertainty about the risk of erosion and sandstorms from the Skaftá river bed, especially the stretch that will dry up from the construction, and from sedimentary deposits above the dam. The reservoir would most likely not start to fill with water until late April or early May, reaching full capacity around mid-June. There would therefore be considerable risk of erosion and sandstorms in early spring, especially as the area is known for its thick layer of fine foil, and large amounts of sediment from the river would accumulate in the reservoir.
Floodings in the river Skaftá could become more frequent
Geothermal activity in the Skaftárkatlar area seems to be on the rise, and the frequency of floodings in the river Skaftá is likely to remain constant or rise. Therefore, the amount of sedimentary deposits in the river bed may possibly rise. The possible effects of increasing soil deposition from the reservoirs and river beds on neighboring ocean ecosystems are virtually unknown.
Impact on groundwater, freshwater springs and fishing
Little is known about how the project might affect groundwater and the water sources of nearby residential areas, but the impact might be considerable and have unforeseen consequences. Large freshwater springs surface at Botnar in Međalland (ranking fifth or sixth among Iceland‘s major spring areas), near the center of the Eldhraun lava field, while by the eastern border of the lava field are found the springs that feed into the creeks Grenlćkur and Tungulćkur. The water here is believed to have three sources; precipitation on the lava field, water seeping through the lava from the river Skaftá, and thirdly, geothermal heat melting ice in the Vatnajökull ice cap with the water running underground all the way to this area along the ancient canyons of Skaftá, but they were buried in lava during the Skaftáreldar volcanic eruptions. It is highly uncertain how and to what extent these springs would be affected by dam construction in the river Skaftá. The springs are valuable in many ways. They are an unusual natural phenomenon and their conservation is of international significance. They represent one of Iceland‘s major natural spring areas, relatively untouched and surrounded by beautiful, unique scenery. Any change in the natural springs could have unforeseen consequences for the birdlife, freshwater ecosystems and wetland areas in Međalland and Landbrot. Considerable economic interests are also at risk as angling in the creeks of Grenlćkur and Tungulćkur could be affected. The local water is also used for fish farming.
Valuable pastures would be lost
The site chosen for the reservoir is largely grassland that has so far been used for pasture. Finding suitable land for pasture in this part of Iceland is a delicate matter, especially due to the proximity of some of the country‘s most active volcanic areas.