It is the beginning of January 2021, and construction on the Tumpen-Habichen power plant is still proceeding at a rapid pace – although court decisions are still pending. The WWF applied for an extraordinary revision on the nature conservation permit in July 2020 which is still pending, as well as the decision on the revision of the water law permit. As events have been overflowing in spring and summer and some of you may have lost track of the situation, here are the most important reasons why we oppose this hydropower project.
The Ötztaler Ache is a special river
The Ötztaler Ache is the largest free-flowing glacial river in Tyrol. 13% of its catchment area is covered by glaciers, which gives the river a very special kind of discharge character. The gradient drop between Tumpen and Habichen – the Tumpen „Gstoag“ or the Obere Achstürze – which will become the residual water stretch of the power plant, is classified in the Tyrolean Nature Conservation Plan for Flowing Waters as unique, sensitive and worthy of preservation. It belongs to the 3% of Tyrolean water bodies that are classified as rare according to the ‚Nature Conservation Plan of Tyrol’s Flowing Water Bodies‘. It is also one of only 0.6% of those water bodies classified as unique. The affected stretch of river is a „very rare aquatic natural habitat type“ and its assigned biotope type („Stretched mountain river“) is on Austria’s Red List of endangered biotope types as „severely endangered“.
The Tumpen-Habichen hydropower plant will be the first power plant in the Ötztaler Ache to interrupt its ecological continuity. As a result, the hydromorphological quality elements „passability (sediment transport)“ and „water balance“, which are currently rated as very good, will deteriorate by one class. This is a breach of the European Water Framework Directive. Read more about this in our blog post „Why is the Ötztaler Ache actually worth protecting?“ from April 1st 2020.
In addition, the Ötztaler Ache is one of Austria’s 74 „river sanctuaries“, this manifests both its value for the country of Austria as well as its worthiness of protection.
In short: the Ötztaler Ache is a special river and we should protect it!
No geological report for geologically highly sensitive area
Since the 1996 study „Sink holes in soft rocks of the Ötz Valley“ by geologists Poscher and Patzelt, it has been known that the village of Tumpen stands on fragile bedrock. Large blocks together with finer material form a subsoil full of cavities that is stable as long as it is not touched. But if water penetrates, it can carry away the fine material, which in turn causes material to slide in from above and holes can open up on the surface. This has happened many times in the past – sinkholes up to 10,000m³ in size! And the Ötztaler Ache has also seeped away during such events and was at times partially flowing underground. You can read more about this here in our blog post from April 19th 2020 „The Tumpen Dam and the Sinkholes“.
So there should be a geological study for which explorations were carried out and which ensures that construction work can be carried out safely in this area – right?
No. No, there isn’t. Instead, the Ötztaler Wasserkraft GmbH had a university professor, who was already retired at the time, certify that the construction work could be carried out safely. He prepared a „study“ which, however, is an almost word-for-word plagiarism of the formerly mentioned one by Poscher and Patzelt. A large part of this „study“ is simply copied verbatim; it deviates from the original in only one point: namely in the conclusion that the construction of the weir and the intake structure can be carried out without any problems.
We consider this negligent. Financially, because due to the lack of a conclusive geological study it is not at all foreseeable what additional costs may arise during construction. And also negligent especially towards the residents of Tumpen.
Approval under nature conservation law was politically enforced against expert opinions
In 2015, a positive nature conservation permit was issued for the Tumpen-Habichen hydropower plant project on the Ötzaler Ache. This decision explains in detail why the planned diversion section, the Obere Achestürze, is a very sensitive and unique stretch of water worthy of protection from a nature conservation point of view. At the same time, only little long-term public interest is identified. This renders the permit impossible to grant. For political reasons, however, these rational arguments were ignored and the permit was granted by the Tyrolean government anyway!
You can read more about this in our blog post from May 7th 2020 „Politics over facts“.
Threat to the Wellerbrücke kayaking section due to diversion and reservoir flushing
The Wellerbrücke stretch starts at the level of the lower road bend between Tumpen and Habichen, and is less than a kilometre downstream of the planned weir. Thus, the first part of the Wellerbrücke section is directly affected by the diversion. This is about 400m and almost a third of the total stretch, even though the greater part of the steep white water lies below the planned reintroduction. TIWAG argues that the kayak world championship course is „not affected by the power plant“ because it lies below the reintroduction, ignoring two points:
- The World Championships section is only a small part of the whole Wellerbrücke section.
- The part of the kayak section that lies below the reintroduction will also be affected by the power plant operation.
We kayakers fear fluctuating water levels on the Wellerbrücke section, especially due to reservoir flushing. As the stretch is very difficult due to its blockage and gradient, even the smallest changes in water level pose a danger to kayakers‘ lives. For this reason, we assume that the entire Wellerbrücke stretch will be lost for kayakers as soon as the power plant starts its operation.
The operating company has not yet commented on this. We therefore commisioned an expert back in June 2020 to give us his assessment of the possible effects of the hydropower plant operation. This expert opinion did not allay our fears, on the contrary.
Read here about the possible change in the sediment regime and the expected surge and sink effects: Blog post from June 25th 2020 „Hydromorphological expert’s opinion on reservoir flushing“.
Sources and Links
(German only) Blogpost „Naturschutzrechtliche Bewilligung für das Wasserkraftwerk Tumpen-Habichen„, Tiroler Umweltanwaltschaft 2015
(German only) Website „Naturschutzplan Fließgewässer„, Tiroler Landesregierung, Abteilung Umweltschutz
(German only) Blogpost „WWF weiht Flussheiligtum Ötztaler Ache ein„, WWF Österreich 2013