Friday, August 08, 2014

Lake in danger

Six years ago, as we started to look forward to our second summer in Normandy, I posted a query on a Normandy internet forum, asking if anyone could advise me where DH could make use of his newly-acquired kayak. I had a couple of general replies and a very friendly one from an English woman, who with her American husband had just bought a summer cabin on the north shore of the Lac de Vezins, about 15 miles south of us. Not only did she assure me that it would be fine to use the kayak there, but she also invited us to visit them to take advantage of the jetty which belongs to their cabin.

Fast forward a couple of months to a Sunday in July, when DH and I set off in the very small campervan to meet J and M for the first time. We arrived for after-lunch coffee and struck up an instant rapport with them, which resulted in us spending a long and very enjoyable afternoon there with much conversation and a lovely trip out on the lake in their boat.

This was the start of a very rewarding friendship and hardly a summer has gone by since without us getting together at least once, mostly at their cabin overlooking the lake. We’ve taken our children and grandchildren there, with meals on the deck looking down the hill to the water and leisurely trips on the lake in J’s boat. The two older grandsons had their first lesson in fishing from the ever-patient J, while DH revelled in trying out his kayak in beautiful surroundings, usually managing to get rather wet in the process.


All very idyllic you would think and in many ways it has been. Yet year after year we’ve taken huge pleasure in this glorious spot with the sad knowledge in the back of our minds that it is scheduled to disappear forever, probably by the end of this year.

For the lake is not a natural lake but a reservoir, created by the double damming of the river Selune, first during WW1 and then at end of the 1920s, to supply water for a hydro-electric scheme. The river valley is narrow and winding, giving a lake almost 12 miles (19km) long and nearly 100 feet deep by the dam.







After the lake was emptied for dam maintenance in April1993




Because the hydro-electric scheme is so small by modern standards and because the Selune was formerly one of the premier salmon rivers of France, the powers-that-be have taken the decision that the dams are to be demolished and the river re-established in its bed, in the hope that almost 100 years after the first dam was built, the salmon will somehow find their way back to their former spawning-grounds.

No matter that almost 800 jobs, mainly in the holiday and leisure industries, will be lost when the lake with all its water activities disappears. No matter that the experts still don’t know how to handle the nearly 2 million cubic metres of accumulated sediment with its load of pesticide and heavy metal pollution. The dams will come down.

Downstream from the lake lies the World Heritage site of Le Mont-Saint-Michel in its unique bay and no-one there, least of all the shell-fisheries, wants yet more pollution. The towns downstream, protected from the risk of flooding for the past 100 years, are also not looking forward to the river Selune running freely again. It will take a good number of years, and probably far more money than is on offer, for the valley to be regenerated fully, which is why the many local people opposed to this decision have still not given up their desperate fight to have it reversed.



There are no prizes for guessing which side DH and I are on. The lake as it stands is a huge asset, even if it never generates another kilowatt. In this poor area, with little employment, tourism is vital, and the lake with its sailing, kayaking, swimming and coarse fishing is very attractive to visitors. It’s also the only body of water of any size in South Manche and sits beautifully in the landscape.



A week ago we sat on the deck in front of the cabin having lunch with J and some of his family (M being back in the UK on grandmother duty) and looking out over the water for what may well be the last time. On our way home we stopped at the viewpoint overlooking the lake, where protest banners demonstrate so clearly the anger of the local inhabitants at this decision that affects them so strongly, yet which was made far away in Paris.

Will there still be a Lac de Vezins when we return next summer or only a wasteland of mud and bare rock? We don’t know and can only cross our fingers and hope…

The lake-bed after emptying in April 1993



Photos of the dam and the emptied lake via Wikipedia Manche

52 comments:

  1. That all looks so beautiful, and the memories so precious... yet all so fragile and easily detroyed. I really hope that some good sense prevails.

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    1. So do I, Catriona. We've just seen in the local paper that there will be a public enquiry on the subject in September - rathe later in the day, but we can only hope some good will come out of it.

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  2. Having meddled with nature once and gotten away with it -- lovely lake which 'sits' well in the landscape, tourist income, locals happy etc you'd think humankind would have more sense than to chance it again.... sigh .....

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    1. Exactly! Given the topography of this steep-sided valley, not many people were displaced when the dams were built. Now hundreds will have their livelihoods threatened or destroyed and the landscape will be diminished. It just doesn't make sense...

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  3. Oh gosh. It's awful when treasured landscapes are suddenly threatened - the stuff of countless bad dreams. I do hope the protestors make some headway.

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    1. Oh, so do I and many others with me. The opposition organisations are still holding public meetings and there is now to be a public enquiry in September (too late for us to attend) so they are not giving up all hope just yet.

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  4. Dear Perpetua, sometimes I read a posting and feel elated and happy for the person who wrote it and often for her/his family. And sometimes, like right now, I read the words of a post and feel somewhat dejected by the inanities of life. In this case, by bureaucracy. Why do those in power so frequently forget the human element--the humans involved--in their decision making and the consequences that will affect those humans? Why? Peace from a mind that is just a little perturbed at what's happened in Normandy!

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    1. I know just what you mean, Dee, and I think it's because those with power are too detached and distant from those their decisions will affect and also because their priorities are often different. They say that help will be given to those affected but I bet it won't be enough and I also mourn the lose of the beauty and tranquillity and the sheer pleasure that lake gives to so many.

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  5. How dreadful....yet another of these costly, ill thought out projects which aim to put France on the right side of the European legislation on water. I can just imagine the amount of public money spent on 'etudes' already....

    And quite apart from the inevitable pollution in the Baie St. Michel what about the livelihoods of the people depending on the tourism generated by the lake? Of no account, as usual.

    I can understand local politicians being up in arms.....even though it was their government that made the initial decision...but there are big contracts to be awarded and I suspect that their doubts will be soothed away in the usual fashion.

    As we have seen at Notre Dame des Landes, even determined protest will be ground down by the use of the CRS if necessary....

    I do detest these weasel words in favour of 'ecology' which actually hide projects which will destroy a natural system which has endured for more than half a century.

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    1. I knew that with your long experience of the French mind and French politics you'd get straight to the heart of the matter, Helen. The initial decision was made back in 2009 by Sarko's Minister for the Environment who was a card-carrying Green ecologist and the studies are still being made. there is to be a public enquiry in September (unfortunately after we go back) but whether that will be more than window-dressing remains to be seen.

      What happened down at Notre Dames des Landes is certainly not encouraging, but people are still busy protesting here, even trying to get the bigger dam listed as architecturally significant. Yes, there are local politicians involved, but also a lot of ordinary people who feel so very strongly this is the wrong decision. The lake is here and it is an asset and it also happens to be beautiful. Why destroy it all?

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  6. Hari OM
    Having a direct family experience of the creation of such a feature (Meggat Water), the thought of it being 'reversed' now would be sickening. If for no other reason than the fact of the disruption and pain it caused first time round; some pollie wants to win points with folk he or she thinks matter more than the people and place. Ecology has adjusted. If only blogville could add its voice to yours on the ground! YAM xx

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    1. I agree with every word, Yam. I grew up close to several large reservoirs which supplied industrial Lancashire with water and they were beautiful as well as useful. Now I live close to a huge artificial lake which regulates the flow of water in the upper Severn and it too is a total asset to the area. To reverse these now would make no sense, which what I feel about the Lac de Vezins. This landscape works. Why change it?

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  7. It would be so sad to see it all disappear when the plusses for keeping it far out way the minuses. I hope that the 'Powers-that be' will listen to sense and the local inhabitants.

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    1. You're so right, Molly, yet I can think of so many instances of the powers-that-be getting it wrong.They aren't good at reversing decisions once made publicly. :(

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  8. It really doesn't bear thinking about - I can imagine what the local reaction would be (including ours) if S-T decided to demolish Llyn Clywedog, and that's only half the age of Lac de Vezins! Nothing can compare with the beauty and restfulness of these lakes - and the folk whose farms and dwellings were inundated must be revolving at speed in their graves, and their descendents should be rightly incandescent at the wasteful and ultimately unnecessary destruction of their patrimony. Not to mention the sestruction of a lovely and much appreciated tourist facility and the livelihoods that accompany it. Bureaucracy (can't spell it!!) ....... Let's hope that the well-known French habit of the populace making it's views felt in no uncertain terms prevails in this case (getting rid of the present government for a start!) Should we say 'roll on the Revolution'? Ah - perhaps not quite that extreme. Mme Defarge and her fellow tricoteuses need not be resurrected yet - nor the tumbrils be got out of storage!!

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    1. I thought of your first point when I was writing this, Helva, and can only too easily imagine the uproar it would cause and the damage it would do to the local economy. Unfortunately the sparseness of the population here makes it very difficult for the protestors to have much of an impact and changing the government wouldn't help either, as it was the previous one that made the initial decision which the present one has confirmed. :-(

      Given the topography, I'm pretty sure only a few dwellings were inundated to create the Lac de Vezins, so the impact of its destruction will be very much greater than that of its creation. But the ecological lobby and also the powerful sport fishing lobby appear to have much more influence than mere local inhabitants, though they are not giving up without much more struggle.

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  9. I am just wondering why they powers that be don't just leave it as is. Even if power is no longer going to be produced, it seems to me that the lake as a getaway attraction employing so many would be a wise thing to protect. There must be some reasoning behind the decision, but it does make one wonder just why such a decision would be forthcoming. I sincerely hope that next year will find you and your friends enjoying the lake again.

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    1. I totally agree with you, Bonnie. It makes so much more sense to leave things as they are. However the electricity company doesn't really want to have to maintain the dam and for the authorities it's easier to demolish it and be seen to be protecting the welfare of a potentially endangered species like the salmon, thus giving themselves environmental bonus points. I do hope the lake is still there next year, but I have my doubts...

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  10. The Powers That Be always do what is of 'commercial' advantage at the time of the decision being made. No thought is given to the future ... that is someone else's problem. The lake as it is looks so perfect and I am positive is an asset to the district ... surely there is a solution that includes tourism. I sincerely hope The Power of the People prevails and The Powers That Be re-evaluate their decision.
    How lovely that a friendship was made by a simple request re a boating area:) It is the little things of live that are the most important.

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    1. Commercial or political, Shirley. I'm afraid I've become very cynical about politicians' motives - so often concentrating on the short-term rather than the long. Tourism is one of the biggest sources of employment in this area, so anything which damages it seems so short-sighted. There will be a public enquiry next month, so we'll have tio see what comes out of that.

      The friendship was a wonderful result of that simple query and it's not the first time we've found friends in such an unexpected way.

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  11. Well, salmon are lovely fish, but really this is a ridiculous idea by the powers-that-be. I do hope People Power can come out strongly to stop the destruction of the lake, rather than risk causing further destruction down-stream. By now, the lake itself is a part of history which needs to be preserved! Great post, Perpetua.

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    1. As Helen put it in her comment, .this appears to be "yet another of these costly, ill thought out projects which aim to put France on the right side of the European legislation on water". The ecological lobby is very strong and though I'm as keen as anyone on protecting the environment, as you point out this IS the environment now in this place and shouldn't be needlessly threatened. Let's see what seprtmeber's public enquiry says. Very late in the day but we'll see...

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  12. I'm so sad to hear about this lovely lake possibly disappearing, Perpetua! When will the powers that be learn to leave well enough alone? The saddest part of that is their being so oblivious -- or just not caring -- about the impact on local people, especially those who will lose jobs or businesses when the lake disappears. It seems that too often the needs of people are sacrificed for the corporate or political bottom line.

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    1. You've put it in a nutshell in your final sentence, Kathy. After nearly 100 years this lake is a treasured part of the landscape and a source of income for the tourist and leisure industries. I can't see where the new jobs are going to come from if it goes. The local people are still fighting, but it's almost a last-ditch affair.

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  13. I am so sad right now, reading this, Perpetua and so, so sorry for the pending doom you must be feeling and the sense of loss. I hope you will be able to be kept abreast of what is happening while you are away and hope that there will a solution that will save these waters, homes, life and livelihood.

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    1. Thank you for your sympathy, penny. yes, i feel a real sense of loss at the mere idea. Beauty is too precious to be squandered like this and the lake really enhances its setting. I have bookmarked the websites of the local French newspapers and will check regularly for updates. People haven't given up hope completely yet, but it's been a long, hard struggle for them

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  14. I am so sorry to hear this, Perpetua. I can only imagine what it would feel like to lose something that is this precious to you, beautiful and appealing to everyone, and all based upon certain "hopes" for regeneration and that the trouts MAY once again establish spawning grounds. Similar decisions have been made in California and other parts of the United States and I just shake my head. I'm generally in favor of protecting small species when we can, but so often there are other ways to do so without destroying the livelihoods of others. I'm going to hope, along with you and the protestors, that at the last minute someone will offer a better solution to the problem. I am sure this is really difficult when to you, this part of France is home! You'll have to let us know how this comes out! Fingers crossed!

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    1. If we as visitors feel like this, Debra, I can hardly imagine what the locals feel when they have lived with the lake all their lives - swum in it as children, fished it and in some cases based their livelihoods on it. After so long, this IS the landscape and to see it disappear to be replaced by a steep-sided valley would be such a shame, especially as no one can guarantee the salmon will return in any numbers. You've posted so often about the damage done to the land by wrong decisions that i can just feel you cheering the protestors on. :) I will indeed let you all know what happens, good or bad.

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  15. Oh dear, Perpetua...where is the common sense when it's needed? All well and good to say environmental issues are important but so is balancing the scales and identifying in which way the environment might suffer most. You make the case so eloquently - could you get a translation done and sent to the authorities? Let's hope local opinions will be considered. Axxx

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    1. Where indeed, Annie? There have been so many people, some well-known and some completely unknown, who have argued so strongly and well for keeping the dams and the lake, but their arguments seem to have fallen on deaf ears so far. I know the local protestors are pinning their hopes on the public enquiry which is scheduled for next month, but the outcome is very uncertain. :(

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  16. This is just awful. It is what happens when decisions are taken out of the hands of local people, who know and understand an area, and made instead by "the powers that be." How do they expect the salmon to come back, and even if they did it sounds like the pollution levels would kill them. I hope common sense prevails, and you have the lake to enjoy for many more years.

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    1. It really is, Kristie. The decision was made by central government in Paris, not surprising in such a centralised state as France. In one way it seems very decentralised, with every village having its mayor, but not where the really important decisions are concerned. I have yet to read any detailed plans of how the huge amount of polluted sediment will be dealt with, just bland assurances that it will be. Grr!

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  17. I'm sorry to hear about this, Perpetua. I can understand why you're so upset about it. I hope they change their plans for the reservoir, it sounds like an important part of the community for so many people.

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    1. It's very important, Jennifer, and has been a beautiful part of the landscape for so long. No-one wants to see it go since the land now underwater is no use for farming as it's too steep. The struggle to get the decision changed is still going on and we're just hoping against hope it will be successful.

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  18. How sad and how shortsighted. I really hope that the fight to keep this lake is successful and that it will still be there for further generations to enjoy.

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    1. That's it in a nutshell, Ayak. We're keeping everything crossed that commonsense will prevail, but you know that doesn't always happen....

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  19. How upsetting and shortsighted. I hope the opposition to to scheme win.

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    1. Oh, so do I, but this is France, so anything is possible. French bureaucratic decisions can be mind-boggling.

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  20. This is very sad news Perpetua.
    I often think, that some men in politics that make these decisions.. have nothing else better to do.!
    No thought for the local residents ..
    I can only hope that when you return it will maybe be full once again.
    We also have silly decisions made like that here in Portugal.
    Take lots of photos for later comparisons.
    val xxxx

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    1. I think you're right, Val. In this case the Minister who made the decision, and the one who confirmed it, were both women, proving that women cane be as distant from the people and make as bad decisions as men.

      The lake is full at the moment, though it had been said last year that the level of the water would be lowered this year. We're both hoping with all our hearts it will still be full next summer.

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  21. This is LEMA, isn't it, La loi sur l’eau et les milieux aquatiques. It's an insane French interpretation of European legislation which has the admirable aim of ensuring the human right to clean water. There's a website here http://www.eaufrance.fr/comprendre/la-politique-publique-de-l-eau/la-loi-sur-l-eau-et-les-milieux which gives the full history. We have the same threat in miniature: our house and another are situated on a millstream. The mills are long gone, but the dams and sluice gates remain. The water is diverted from the Aigronne, a first class trout river (familiar?) and the sluice gates are always open, so there is no barrier to the passage of trout and eels, both species being migratory. However there is talk of demolishing the weir at the top of the millstream, just in case there is a barrier to the wretched fish. That will leave an unknown quantity of sediment behind the weir to wash happily over the river bed, obliterating the gravel beds where the trout breed. It will leave us and our neighbours beside a stagnant, stinking ditch full of mosquitos - CLEAN water? not for us. We have been recording species of birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs and dragonflies for Faune Touraine for less than a year, and have recorded species for the first time in the Departement, including the Large Pincertail dragonfly. Harvest mouse and water vole were previously identified only from their presence in owl pellets, we see them going about their daily lives. They won't survive without clean running water.

    The River Technician who has to implement this law plainly thinks it's bonkers to demolish the dams. If it comes to it, we may have to pay for the installation of a fish ladder to bypass it. The region and the commune have spent a fortune on improving the river flow to improve oxygenation of the water and removing dead and dying trees (mainly poplars) that could fall and cause a blockage. Our technician has been careful to leave as many dead trees as he can, for the wildlife.
    I have great fellow feeling for J and M, but for me it's personal and I really had to get this off my chest. It's a continual background threat to our future here and it's already starting to stink. I just hope the water vole and the pincertail can do for us what the brown hairstreak can do for Brookfield farm.

    There is an anti-LEMA movement of sorts, but it reeks of nimbyism, although the argument is much wider. I have memories of a French law that proposed to cut down all the roadside trees, to reduce the number of accidents, because people kept driving into them. Hundreds of thousands of trees. The drunk drivers and speed merchants would just find something else to drive into, like houses, or each other. And the saga of the breath test bags which had evry conscientious motorist running around like a squirrel in a wheel trying to find not one but two - or perhaps four, of the things... utterly impractical, not remotely thought through, hang the consequences.

    There is a petition to the French government to amend LEMA here
    http://www.petitionpublique.fr/?pi=P2014N46133

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    1. Hello Pollygarter and welcome to my blog, I'm delighted you got your dreadful situation off your chest and understand completely why you are so upset and angry about what may happen to your lovely mill-stream. Yes, LEMA has been given as the reason why the dams are set for demolition, with all the potentially disastrous effects you fear for your own stream, but on a hugely bigger scale.

      Of course it's personal for you and for anyone whose home or livelihood stands to be adversely affected by the outworking of these decisions. Thank you so much for the link to the website and the petition. The former has been bookmarked to be read in depth and my husband and I have already signed the petition to add our voices to the campaign.

      I remember the suggestion that roadside trees should be cut down to reduce accidents and wondered then whether I'd inadvertently gone through into a looking-glass world. of course it came to nothing and i wish the breathalyser law had done the same before we wasted good money on the things.

      Good luck with your own opposition to the planned work on your stream. I really hope and pray your worst fears aren't realised.

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  22. Oh dear, what on earth can the powers that be be thinking of.

    There must be an argument on both sides, I cannot believe that anybody would be so stupid as the eliminate a whole tranche of rural well-being for some idiotic scheme.

    Or am I deluded?

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    1. Not deluded, but the very opposite You're expressing the kind of common-sense that seems to fly out of the window when pet schemes like this are brought forward. Sigh...

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  23. The first part of this post was so great. I was so enjoying reading about your friends, the place where you met them, and the times you had in your special spot, and then boom, the bottom fell out. What can these people be thinking? Why do these think that such things should be done? I am so sad to read this. Is there any way this will all go away and the place can be saved?

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    1. I'm sorry to have had that effect on you, Sally, but that's very much how we felt when we first hear of the plans in 2009. Since then we've been trying to find out as much as we can and show our support whenever we can. There is to be a public enquiry in September and I've just read that the draining of the lake may now be scheduled not to happen until after next summer, but the decision has certainly not yet been reversed and may never be. :(

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  24. Politicians are the same in every country – they rarely ask the opinion of the constituent in the area where they make their unilateral decisions. Being away from Paris, the powers don’t really care about the people, they want to show that they care more about the fish, whether that will work out or not – by then others will be elected.

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    1. Vagabonde, your cynicism about politicians equals my own! In this case Ministers for the Environment of two differnt governments have made and confirmed this decision, both times without seeming to take into account local opinion and feelings. But people here haven't yet given up hope entirely and are waiting for a public enquiry in September. One can only hope...

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  25. Sorry Perpetua, for not visiting & commenting here for so long but you know the reason why.....

    I remember you mentioning this lake and the likelihood of it being dismantled, in a comment on one of my blogposts more than three years ago http://rickyyates.com/slapy-lake-vodni-nadrz-slapy/ . The idea that it's possible to return the river to the state it was prior to the dam being built, seems absurd. I do hope the decision can yet be reversed and the lake still be there to be enjoyed for many years to come.

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    1. Never too late for your comment to be welcome, Ricky. :-) Sadly, it looks as though the demolition of the dams will go ahead unless something very unexpected happens. The one ray of hope is that the water level of the lake will be maintained at least until the end of summer 2015, which is very good news for the water-sports centre located there. They are working on diversification, but the disappearance of the lake would be a huge blow to them.

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  26. Has there been any further news about the lake?
    Have the plans for demolition of the dam of the lake gone ahead?
    We were planning to spend the summer near the lake and were hoping to make use of the water sports. If you know the latest information I would be very grateful if you would let me know.

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    1. Hi Chris. Last summer the lake was still there, though the water level was a little lower than usual. I've just done some googling and have found an article in the regional newspaper Ouest-France, dated 19/1/16 which confirms that the lake will still be there this summer and that after some preliminary work dealing with previous pollution the first stage of emptying will begin in spring 2017. So it looks as though your holiday activities this summer should be safe, though obviously I can make no definite guarantee. It also looks as though it isn't totally definite that the dams will be demolished, but emptying for cleaning and inspection is long overdue and has to take place. Hope this helps.

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