Chilean Patagonia Region XI Baker River, often dubbed the most plentiful river in Chile, is experiencing a decrease in water flow due to this year's unusually sparse rainfall. Government officials insist the conditions are temporary, but records indicate that the river's water levels have been steadily decreasing in the last several years.
The water level of the Baker is currently so low that ferry services in the El Manzano sector (8 km from Cochrane) have been temporarily suspended until conditions improve. Low water levels have hindered the ferry vessels' ability to run the course, and the vessels can no longer access ramps on shore to allow cars and trucks onboard. "This problem is absolutely temporary," said Provincial Governor Miguel Aravena. "Sunny days and higher temperatures will be enough to accelerate the snow melting and the river's water level will normalize. Fluctuations are natural this time of year." An interim boat, limited to seven passengers with small carry-on luggage, has been running the ferry course three times daily since Wednesday. The national director of the General Water Administration (DGA), Rodrigo Weisner, assured that the water level "is low, but there have been years in which the decrease in water level has been more significant. In any case, we hope that the river will return to normal levels in the couple of months and that the coming snowmelt this season will contribute to raising water levels." Although changes in water level are natural depending on the season, this year the river level is undoubtedly lower than in previous years. The river usually boasts an average flow of 870 cubic meters per second (m3/s), but, according to the daily registry of the DGA under the Ministry of Public Works (MOP), the river's highest water flow was 693.6 m3/s last January. The Lake Bertrand measuring station recorded the river's levels at 518.4 m3/s last May and 308.7 m3/s this month, the lowest recorded all year and lower than its 463.4 m3/s measurement in August of 2003. The steady decrease in water flow is linked to changes in the river's water sources. The Baker River receives water from glaciers, precipitation, snow melt, and the General Carrera Lake (the second largest in South America). This year's appearance of weather phenomenon La Niña has kept temperatures unusually low and precipitation infrequent. The precipitation deficit in Region XI has already reached 59 percent this year. The Baker River, one of the largest rivers in Chile, is also the site of one of the country's largest controversies: a massive dam project spearheaded by energy companies Endesa and Colbún. The hydroelectric project is designed to help fill the country's growing energy need (which rises more than 6 percent each year) and ease its dependence on natural gas from Argentina, which Chile uses for electricity production. Environmentalists and Region XI residents opposing the venture maintain that the project would be environmentally and culturally catastrophic. As for the river's steadily decreasing water flow, Weisner assures "It will not affect the river's energy potential." The Santiago Times -