Drought threatens Hungarian lake with environmental crisis

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GARDONY, HUNGARY – Lake Velence, a shallow freshwater lake in central Hungary, is a refuge for more than 100 species of birds, dozens of species of fish and crowds of tourists who come to bathe in its waters to relax in hot summers.

But many visitors to the lake, both animals and humans, have disappeared as the extreme heat has brought the water to dangerously low levels, which activists and environmental experts say threatens the country’s third largest natural lake. an economic and ecological crisis.

They say climate change and poor infrastructure collide, with devastating effects. The lake has lost almost half of its water over the past two years as hot, dry summers have resulted in accelerated evaporation and deteriorating water quality.

“We are talking about years of rainfall deficit, drought and continued water scarcity,” environmental management engineer and activist Tibor Horanyi said. “For years we have seen what role global warming plays in our lives, and it is clearly linked to this low water level.”

The optimum water level for Lake Velence (pronounced ‘VEH-len-tseh) in August is 150 centimeters (5 feet), according to the local water authority.

But on Thursday, the water level stood at 80 centimeters (2 feet 7 inches), an amount of water that Horanyi called “critical.”

The hot, dry weather can cause up to 1 centimeter per day of evaporation from Lake Velence, according to official measurements. These reduced levels mean that water temperatures are rising faster, leading to decreased oxygen content, increased algae blooms, and reduced water quality.

After a long, cold spring, Hungary experienced its third warmest June since 1901 and then the hottest July on record, according to the National Weather Service.

The extreme heat caused the water temperature in the lake to rise 10 degrees Celsius (18 F) in a week in June, Horanyi said, resulting in the death of more than four tonnes (8,800 pounds) of fish that have then collected by volunteers. .

Otto Balogh, a local fisherman, told The Associated Press that conditions in the water were clearly visible and had an impact on his catch.

“There are no fish. In the last three weekends I’ve been here, it’s the first time I’ve caught anything,” Balogh said.

The shallow marshes at the western end of the lake have dried up completely and many of the birds normally seen in the lake’s bird sanctuary have disappeared.

“There are no more waterfowl now. They’ve gone somewhere else to find food, I guess,” Balogh said.

In July, the local public health department ordered the closure of four beaches on Velence Lake, citing water quality samples that did not meet required standards.

While most beaches have since reopened, few swimmers venture into the water which, due to low levels, barely reaches waistline even if they wade over 100 meters.

Low water levels, dying fish and closed beaches have led to a dramatic decrease in tourism to local restaurants, bars and hotels, said Peter Vas, a resident and local activist, threatening further hardship for a local economy already hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of money has been invested here by traders, restaurateurs and vacationers to make it a great place to have fun,” Vas said. “This lake must be saved.”

The activists urged the Hungarian government to take action to protect the lake from further deterioration and to provide the necessary resources to bring the water back to minimum levels.

But persistent hot weather and poor infrastructure prevented a quick solution to the crisis.

Two reservoirs were built in the 1970s to provide water to the lake if the levels fell too low. But a spokesperson for the national water authority said the drought and extreme heat had also caused low water levels in these reservoirs, resulting in a high algae content that made the water unsafe for use. repair of the water deficit of the lake.

Zoltan Tessely, the government commissioner responsible for the development of Lake Velence, told local television station Fehervar TV last week that he had submitted a proposal to the government to replenish the lake’s water, but which the government had rejected. the price of $ 133 million. tag, saying he needed funds to support economic recovery from the pandemic.

Vas, the local activist, admitted that the lake had already dried up, noting that in 1863 Hungarian hussars were training with their horses in the lake bed.

“But now it’s the 21st century,” he said. “We must have the capacity to save this protected natural area.”

With no immediate solution in sight and only hot, dry weather in the forecast, only political will can avert an environmental disaster at Lake Velence, he said.

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