Massive dam project threatens pristine alpine valley in Austria
The southern Ötztal region represents the largest remaining connected glacial zone of the entire Eastern Alps and is thus part of a pan-Alpine network of wilderness areas. Consisting of some 700 snow-capped peaks, the mountain massif straddles the border between Austria and Italy.
Various valleys penetrating the high mountain range, such as the Kaunertal and the Platzertal, would be affected by the proposed TIWAG project to increase the output of an existing hydropower plant. The so called “Kaunertal Extension Project” is currently in its planning stage. In the coming days, the Austrian minister for the environment, Nikolaus Berlakovich, is expected to decide on the legal framework to make it possible.
If approved, an almost 120 metre high embankment dam would be constructed in the spectacular Platzer-Valley (“Platzertal”) posing a severe threat to its rare alpine habitats such as alpine meadows and dry grasslands. Most of these areas are protected under European Law and listed in the Annex of the EU Habitats Directive.
Furthermore, the region offers a pristine freshwater system. The two most outstanding features are the Venter and Gurgler Creeks and their pristine tributaries. All in all, four rivers would be heavily impacted by the interventions of the TIWAG plans: their waters would be conveyed via an expansive pipeline system into the Kaunertal valley and the rivers will be transformed into lifeless drainages.
These measures have high potential impacts on the Ötztal Alps Wilderness Area, affecting the Natura 2000 site of “Ötztaler Alpen”, the “Nature Park Ötztal” as well as the idyllic Platzertal with its unique flora and fauna.
WWF has recently commissioned a scientific study on the natural values of the Ötztal Alps Wilderness Area. The study examined the outstanding ecological values of this region and its vital importance for the preservation of alpine habitats and species. According to the study, the dam project would have a lasting, negative and unavoidable impact on these natural values.
“We do not oppose the expansion of hydropower energy in general – but everything has its limits. WWF cannot accept the destruction of wilderness areas. No compensatory measures can justify the destruction of such habitats of pristine beauty”, said Thomas Diem, Freshwater expert of WWF Austria.
WWF in cooperation with other citizen groups recently announced its mutual opposition to the TIWAG project and promised to adamantly defend the Ötztal region. Supported by a broad coalition of Austria’s largest nature conservation organisations, paddlers’ and fishermen associations, they urge the Austrian environmental Minister not to approve the destructive project.
The wilderness area of the Ötztal Alps boasts a plethora of species of European importance, such as 22 unique and protected plant species and lichens, 13 species of birds and 15 other animal species that are strongly protected by the regulations of Tyrolean environmental law. WWF is especially concerned about the internationally significant river systems as well as the survival of the population of important alpine species such as the Golden Eagle, the Alpine Capricorn and the Alpine Marmot, which in this area has the largest naturally found population in the entire eastern Alps.
The Study “Ötztal Alps Wilderness Area” and related factsheets and photos can be downloaded here.