The impact the highland dam at Kárahnjúkar has on the lake Lagarfljót by Egilsstaðir in East Iceland is considered to be more severe than earlier anticipated. Local authorities, landowners, environmentalists and MPs have expressed their concern over the situation.Lagarfljót. Photo: Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir/Iceland Review.
“Life is almost over in Lagarfljót,” Gunnar Jónsson, who chairs the district council of Fljótsdalshérað, commented to Fréttablaðið.
When Hálslón, the reservoir of the Kárahnjúkar power plant, which started operating in 2007, fills up, water from the lagoon overflows into the channel of the glacial river Jökulsá á Dal.
With the dam’s establishment, Jökulsá á Dal was made to flow into Lagarfljót and glacial sediment increases the water’s turbidity or cloudiness.
In the past months, Landsvirkjun, the national power company, has presented reports on erosion of the banks of Lagarfljót and other consequences of the glacial river’s rechanneling.
The erosion is more extensive and the water level higher than what all mathematical models indicated.
Gunnar revealed to Fréttablaðið on Monday his concerns about land erosion.
“The raising of the base water level by the bridge across Lagarfjót by [the farms] Fellabær and Hóll in Hjaltastaðaþinghá increases erosion of sensitive river banks,” the district council wrote in a protocol, where Landsvirkjun is urged to take counteracting measures.
“Landsvirkjun has never wanted to interfere in this matter but that might be changing now,” Gunnar commented.
Gunnar stated that farmlands and natural relics are at risk, islets and banks to the north of the bridge. “You can already see the impacts on the diversity of this very beautiful bird paradise. It pains me to witness this,” Gunnar, who owns the land Egilsstaðir I, to which the islets belong, remarked.
Erosion is reported at a 50-kilometer stretch along the banks of Lagarfljót. Gunnar describes it as a completely different lake.
“It lies higher in winter, the water flow has increased and the water that comes from the dam is warmer. Therefore Lagarfljót hardly ever freezes in winter as it used to. With northerly winds the waves crash against the banks and tear them down,” he explained.
Gunnar stated yesterday that the latest “shock” had come at a meeting between representatives of Fljótsdalshérað and Landsvirkjun where a report on the life in the lake was discussed.
It turned out that Lagarfljót has become much murkier than it used to be, which hinders photosynthesis of algae. “Fish is therefore largely disappearing from the lake,” Gunnar explained.
Information officer at Landsvirkjun Magnús Þór Gylfason pointed out that the report isn’t finished. He also stated that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the dam had warned before its construction that conditions of the lake’s biosphere would worsen with increased flow of water.
“I don’t believe a license for constructing the dam would ever have been issued if this had been known,” Pétur Elísson, who chairs the Association of Landowners by Lagarfljót, told Fréttablaðið.
Landowners discussed the matter yesterday evening. “It is very serious if the biosphere in Lagarfljót is dying. It’s a catastrophe,” Pétur exclaimed. He pointed out that this also affects the lake’s side rivers as fish migrate into them. “This is a death sentence.”
However, Pétur stressed that the outcome of Landsvirkjun’s research isn’t final yet.
In 2001, Minister for the Environment Siv Friðleifsdóttir revoked the Icelandic National Planning Agency’s decision that the Kárahnjúkar dam shouldn’t be constructed.
“Because of the character of Lagarfjót and its biosphere it is the ministry’s evaluation that the changes through glacial sediment will not have a severe impact on the lake’s biosphere,” Siv concluded.
Pétur admitted that it was clear that the dam at Kárahnjúkar would lead to worsening water transparency in Lagarfljót. “But no one thought the situation would be this serious.”
“I don’t think we can brag about clean energy to attract tourists if we kill the biosphere of several hundred square kilometers,” he commented.
Pétur stated landowners whose properties have been damaged have not been approached by Landsvirkjun. “We are being walked all over. They think it’s their personal affair but we should at least be informed about what counteracting measures they’re planning to take, both in regard to the water level and biosphere.”
“It’s too early to panic,” Jósef Valgarð Þorvaldsson, chair of the Lagarfljót Fishing Association, told Fréttablaðið. He doesn’t want to draw any conclusions before the report on the lake’s biosphere has been finalized.
Left-Green MP Álfheiður Ingadóttir requested a meeting with the parliament’s Environment and Communications Committee to discuss the condition of Lagarfljót yesterday.
“I find it very important that we learn from the experience of the Kárahnjúkar power plant and give nature the benefit of a doubt,” Álfheiður commented.
Author and environmentalist Andri Snær Magnason, who actively protested the Kárahnjúkar dam and power plant, blogged: “Now what many people feared has come to light. Lagarfljót is dead. One cannot say it came as a surprise. I wrote an entire book about it,” he wrote in reference to his much-acclaimed Dreamland.
Andri Snær warns that Lake Mývatn in Northeast Iceland may be next, in the vicinity of which the controversial Bjarnarflag geothermal project is planned.