Saving the Lake – Will Ecology and Wind Power Destroy a Habit?

The Neusiedlersee is Austria's largest lake, just 45 minutes from the city. It is a paradise for birds and sailors, cyclists and wine growers, as long as there is water in it. That may change.

In every country there are tacky jokes teasing a certain group, geographical or ethnic. In Austria it is the Burgenländer (the state immediately east and south of Vienna) who have this dubious honor. A classic version (in brief) tells how Jesus Christ had offered a courageous local boy whatever he wished, and the lad promptly requested a highway bridge right across the lake. Jesus, wisely, refused. But back in 1970’s the then regional governor did propose just that.

This beautiful lake has always been under threat from man and nature.

From Huge Sea to Rice Paddy

Geologically the 36km long Neusiedlersee is actually just a giant rain puddle. No rivers of any consequence flow into it, so in prolonged dry periods, the water level sinks drastically, bringing with it hazards for its delicate ecological balance and great inconvenience for the thousands of sailors. This year the water level is the lowest since 2003 and ongoing global warming is expected to aggravate the trend.

This is not new. The lake has always been unstable: From 1864-1870 it dried out completely and farmers planted rice. But the lake soon surged back. Various plans to drain it for agricultural use have never been realized; the engineering problems are huge and the (relatively) high salt content in the soil not helpful.

Well Meant, But Wrong

“A lake paradise is dying in the name of nature conservancy,” wrote historian Gudula Walterskirchen in Die Presse recently. Glorying in the rare birds found there, she closes with the ostrich, i.e. local politicians with their heads in the sand. “Neither the present governor Hans Peter Doskozil nor his predecessors want to get involved with the problems of this fragile lake,” she added.

But the real villains, she says, are well-meaning eco-warriors and their natural ally, the reeds. Until the 1940’s the Schilfgürtel (the belt of reeds around the lake) was kept in check, harvested regularly as a valuable building material. By the 1980’s, the area was declared a nature preserve so that the alternative practice of burning the reeds was no longer possible.

Reed growth is now throttling the lake. Uncut reeds die back and decay, depriving the water of oxygen. This produces more silt, while the reeds themselves consume massive amounts of water, and other plants take root. “This process cannot be reversed,” she writes ominously. “Exaggerated conservation is killing the animals that live there.”

Eco-Villains

Another villain is the windfarms. Their mere presence re-routes migratory birds, so fewer are nesting there. The rotors themselves raise the temperature and dry out the top soil, according to U.S. studies, creating another self-perpetuating process. With the 211 unit windfarm belonging to a state owned energy provider, political intervention is unlikely.

It’s “a bleak outlook” for sailors, heralds the cover story for the August Yacht Revue. A single hot summer’s day can reduce the water level by a whole centimeter, writes Judith Duller-Mayrhofer. If the 2020 summer weather continues as present, not only the bigger boats will be confined to dock, even light weight catamarans and dinghies will have a difficult time of it.

Engineers vs. Ecologists: 1-1

Duller-Mayrhofer’s piece concerns itself with practical solutions and an obvious option for a landlocked lake is to divert water from somewhere else. The Danube is just a few miles away, presenting a mix of feasibility and ecological concerns. For the engineers it would mean digging a sizable canal to carry the necessary water and even then, it would take five to ten years to refill the lake. For the ecologists this is heresy: “The partial drying up of the Neusiedlersee is not a catastrophe,” Prof. Christian Schuhböck told Yacht Revue, “it is a natural process in the Pannonian environment.”

Good Neighbors

A bright spot in a time of political tensions between neighbors is the Austrian-Hungarian Water Commission – important as the lower end of the Neusiedlersee is in Hungarian territory and the run-off sluice gates under their control. In addition, the most likely water source is probably the Mosoni Duna, a side arm of the Danube on the Hungarian side. The Austrian task force leader, Christian Sailer, reports that relations with the Hungarian colleagues are working well. So practical engineers may be able to get together where eco-warriors cannot. Whether political ostriches can get their heads out of the silt in time is another question.

If you want to sail, get your boat in the water soon. If (like Jesus) you’d rather walk, you may have to wait a bit. But with mankind doing its best to accelerate the natural swing, probably not so long.

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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