The Jiu River’s Gorge – (already) a memory of the past?

The Jiu River, an important tributary of the Danube, situated in south-western Romania, drains a watershed covering 10.080 km2 and was, until recently one of the few Romanian rivers spared from alterations caused by hydraulic works. Even with the sporadic presence of small reservoirs, with limited environmental impact and used mainly for fish farming or for producing small amounts of hydropower, the Jiu watershed was one of the wildest and most picturesque areas of Romania.

Formed at the junction of the East Jiu and the West Jiu rivers, south of the mining town of Petroșani, the Jiu River flows 300 kilometres from the north towards the south, passing through all relief types, sometimes in a spectacular manner (its waters divide the Parâng Mountains from the Retezat Godeanu Massif, drain the Gorj Subcarpathians and the Getic Piedmont and, on their last 100 kilometres, slow down and wind as a narrow strip through the Oltenia Plain before joining the blue Danube). And if we mentioned the word spectacle, we think there is no exaggeration in considering the Jiu Gorge, the final step of the river’s tumultuous Carpathian trip, as a veritable bullfight among the rocks (Fig. 1). Between Aninoasa (in the north) and Bumbești (in the south), there is a narrow and steep valley, sculpted on limestone cliffs and scree, which offers breathtaking views, endless research opportunities and an excellent setting for river rafting and sport fishing. From time to time, muddy, turbid water comes from upstream, after it was used to wash coal in the Petroșani basin, but this aspect too belongs to the specific character of the Jiu watershed… A much more serious cause of concern is the appearance of a chain of reservoirs between Petroșani and Tîrgu Jiu, which completely alters the hydro-sedimentary balance of the river.

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Fig. 1. The Jiu River inside the gorge, in a sector that will be altered by the planned hydraulic works.

Date of the picture: 06.08.2016

The story of the “taming” of Jiu River began in the nineties, with the inauguration of the Tîrgu Jiu and Vădeni hydroelectric power stations, which drastically altered the face of the river’s dynamics. The moment when these power plants began to operate brought not only the economic benefit of cheap electricity but also substantial changes in the hydro-sedimentary dynamics, caused by the interference  of the two reservoirs with the alluviums carried by the river, which were now largely captured by these artificial lakes. Presently, after less than 30 years, ANAR (the National Water Management Agency of Romania) estimates that Vădeni Lake, the northernmost of the two, and the first one in the path of Jiu’s alluviums, is 85% silted. The effects are so obvious that sometimes, it is possible to see the thick layer of coal and sediment mud that, during dry spells, reaches the water surface. From this we can easily understand that the objectives of this dam, which are primarily to produce electricity and, secondarily, to supply potable water and defend against floods, can no longer be fulfilled, as the reservoir is currently operational for only two hours each day. At the same time, the Tîrgu Jiu reservoir (Fig. 2), located immediately downstream from Vădeni, is less affected by silting and pollution, being protected by its northern neighbour which takes in the solid and liquid flows of the Jiu. Nevertheless, in a not so distant future, when Vădeni Lake will be completely clogged, Tîrgu Jiu reservoir will probably share its fate.

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Fig. 2.  Tîrgu Jiu Reservoir.

Picture date: 12.07.2017

Further upstream of Tîrgu Jiu, at the entrance in the gorge, we find yet another chain of reservoirs under construction, in the villages of Turcinești, Curtișoara and Sâmbotin. There, the minor riverbed and the floodplain are bordered in some sectors by concrete dykes and in other sectors by walls made of stone that does not originate in the region, removing all trace of the meandering course of the river as it exits the mountains. In order to work on training and altering the riverbed, the depth of Jiu River is also regulated, and sometimes becomes shallow enough to be crossed on foot, wearing rubber boots (Fig, 3). Almost nothing of the Jiu’s former greatness, which exited the mountains as a whirling river and then turned into a calm and wide watercourse as it crossed the plains, will be maintained in the shy body of water that is going to replace it in the sector which will be occupied by the future chain of reservoirs. When the works will be completed, the river will be completely controlled in this sector, which was once a textbook example of hydro-morphological greatness.

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Fig. 3. Reservoir under construction near the village of Sâmbotin. The shallow waters of the river are clearly visible.

Picture date: 05.08.2016

Further upstream, we reach our area of interest, the Jiu Gorge. Declared a National Park in 2005 and a Nature 2000 site in 2008, the gorge is protected for its habitats, which provide shelter for a variety of wild, and sometimes endemic, flora and fauna, as well as for its scientific value, revealed by the 11 hectares of natural park that contain numerous geomorphological sites. From a hydrological standpoint, the 33-kilometer long sector of the gorge is characterized by a series of rapids, waterfalls, narrows and openings of the riverbed, with many gravel obstacles which “unwind” the water, forming streams that run at different speeds and race each other to pass through the gorge. Higher up, mostly on the left side of the valley, the national road no. 66 winds along the river and offers an opportunity for thousands of eyes and cameras to capture the waters dancing below (Fig. 4). Even higher up, in a tunnel that pierces the rocks, we find the Bumbești – Livezeni railway line.

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Fig. 4.  Jiu River in the gorge, between the rocks.

Picture date: 06.08.2016

On both sides of the river, majestic trees, both coniferous and deciduous, grace the mountainsides and cast their shadows over the gorge… This could be a very short description of this spectacular and narrow sector of the Jiu River between Petroșani and Bumbești (Fig. 5), a sector which has already fallen prey to the iron claws of construction machines. Under the pretext of generating green energy, at the expense of protecting precious hydrological, geological floral and faunal treasures, two full-size hydro-electric power stations and a micro hydro-electrical power station are planned to harness the kinetic energy of Jiu’s waters and of a number of its tributaries (Dumitra and Bratcu) and turn it into electricity for the next 50 years. Renewable energy, but at what cost? On the entire 30 kilometer long sector, the flow of the Jiu will be reduced by a factor of 5, and when it will reach the concrete reservoirs of Livezeni, Dumitra and Bumbești, its discharge will equal the lowest values ever recorded during droughts (less than 3 m3/s). The difference between this very low value and the average discharge of Jiu River in the gorge sector, which normally stands at almost 21 m3/s (as measured at Sadu hydrometric station), will be used to turn the turbines of the power plants and generate about 50 MW of energy, while using an enormous amount of water from the riverbed and leaving a small trickle, 15-20 centimeters deep, in the place where the river once ran.

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 Fig. 5. Scheme of the Jiu ”Industrial Waterpower Park”

In order to supply a constant volume of water and to control the river even during extreme hydrological periods (flash floods, flooding and low waters), the gorge will be covered in concrete slabs near the dams. Thus, the gorge sector of Jiu River will become a docile stream under the “whip” of the national hydro-electric company, an entirely different picture from the free and lively river that we know today. The images below capture the ongoing process of the gorge’s anthropization (Fig. 6 and 7).

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 Fig. 6. Hydraulic works in the gorge

And if this was not dramatic enough, the interventions affecting the riverbed and the discharge of the Jiu River have been carried out without respecting the law. On the contrary, there are major questions, highlighted by petitions drawn by concerned citizens, court complaints and press articles, regarding the legality of starting and then continuing the hydraulic works carried out in the Jiu’s gorge starting from 2003 and continuing up to the present day. More information on the legal aspects of this ongoing struggle will be presented in a future article.

 

Fig. 7. Hydraulic works in the gorge

Until then, you should try to find out for yourself the true cost of generating green energy and decide what is more important: a few megawatts of electricity, which could also be generated using more modern and less polluting techniques for harnessing conventional energy sources or the mirage of a few hundreds of jobs and some “green certificates” stolen from nature in disregard of the protected status of the Jiu River’s gorge.

Sources:

Article written by Gabriela Moroşanu and translated by Mihail-Andreas Mitoşeriu

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