Famed river falls victim to utility firm

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Norway’s Lærdal River has long attracted wild salmon fishing enthusiasts including royalty and rock stars, all of them eager to cast their lines from its banks. On Monday the water level in the scenic river suddenly fell when a local ultility firm made a big mistake, raising fears that several generations of salmon have been wiped out.

A view of the Laerdal River near Seltåsen, with power lines in the foreground. The river is regulated for hydro-electric power, with three power stations along it producing around 1,000 GWH per year. PHOTO: NVE/Stig Storheil

“I couldn’t believe my own eyes,” Mark Brooks, a fisherman and hunter from Lærdal, told Norwegian Broadcaster (NRK).

Brooks said he was up and out early on Monday for deer hunting. He was sitting at his post along the river when suddenly it became very quiet around him. “The sound of rushing water from the river disappeared and large portions of it ran dry,” Brooks said. The wide portion of the river where he sat turned into “a little brook,” he told NRK.

And then he spotted thousands of tiny fish quivering and jumping on land and on newly exposed rocks, fighting for their lives. The spawn that should have formed new generations of salmon fought a losing battle, and couldn’t survive when the river literally ran dry.

Emergency meetings were underway on Wednesday after it quickly emerged that local utility firm Østfold Energi had inadvertently tapped the Lærdal, leaving it well under acceptable water levels for nearly two hours. No one at the power company could explain what went wrong, or how something like that could happen.

“This is extremely unfortunate,” Oddmund Kroken, chief executive of Østfold Energi, told NRK, taking the blame for what some are calling a “catastrophe” for wild salmon in the river locally known as Lærdalselvi. “We corrected the waterflow as soon as were made aware that water levels were under minimum levels, and we’re working now to find out what the reason was for the drop.”

He acknowledged that several years’ worth of spawn have likely been lost. “Yes, and that’s sad,” Kroken told NRK Tuesday evening. “We don’t know the extent of it yet, but we’ll have a meeting with Lærdal officials and the landowners’ group along the river, to discuss what happened and assess the damage.”

Østfold Energi also alerted Norway’s national directorate for waterways and hydroelectric power, NVE. Regional director Brigt Samdal confirmed NVE was being oriented and “trying to get an overview of the situation.”

It’s an especially heavy blow for the Lærdal, which runs from the mountains of Filefjell and Hemsedalsfjellet and empties into the Sognefjord, because it was closed to fishing for several years following the discovery of a parasite in 1996. Only during the past few years have fishing stocks in the river been built up again to earlier levels. The Lærdal is also one of King Harald V’s favorourite fising rivers.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund