With the recent snow and rain it is hard to believe that the Savoie is currently in its third year of drought. The residents of Saint-Gervais close to Mont-Blanc have been told to reduce their water consumption and both Megève and le Grand Bornand faced restrictions in 2005. In February les Arcs had to be supplied with bottled water for a week after the supplies became contaminated.
Could this be the future for the Alps?
Beyond a simple lack of rain the problems are complex but are in part linked to winter tourism. Snow canons are in the firing line. Since the first artificial snow making was installed in France in the early 1980s snow making has expanded to cover 5,000 hectares of runs and consumes 250 megawatts of energy. Each hectare requires 4,000 m3 of water over a season, three times that of a thirsty crop like maize. In 2003/2004 thirteen million m3 of water was used for snow making, equivalent to the consumption of a town like Bristol. 15% of that water comes from the mains supply, 30% from rivers and 55% from reservoirs. Paradoxically it is when there is a lack of precipitation that ski stations resort most to artificial snow making.
Unlike towns down on the plains mountain communities do not have access to artisian wells to draw on. Instead they rely on water courses and storing water in reservoirs. In the winter most of the free water is locked up in glaciers and snow. There is also a limited time that water can be stocked in reservoirs before it becomes brackish and undrinkable. During the winter water consumption increases five fold due to the influx of winter sports enthusiasts. Managing limited supplies is a major headache.
Continuing a trend of lack of rain and increased demands this winter has been particularly difficult. After flooding in August the autumn was very dry then the weather turned extremely cold in December and January which locked up what precipitation there was in ice. These conditions also lead to increased demand from ski resorts to supplement their natural snow. There is also a problem with leakage in the water distribution system with around 40% of water simply disappearing in the area. This equates to 35 million m3. Enough to make snow for the whole of the alps with water to spare.