Lac de Montbel is a shimmering turquoise lake that stretches over 1,400 acres of southwestern France in the foothills of the Pyrenees – a haven for wildlife, a vital source of irrigation for farmers and water for the local rivers, and a tourist paradise. But after the driest winter in more than six decades, it’s a shadow of itself.
Shrinking water levels, beached boats, buoys resting on the cracked earth of the lake bed – the current views of Lac de Montbel are more reminiscent of what one would expect at the end of a scorching summer. Not at the end of winter.
Currently at around 28% capacity, water levels are half of what is typical for this time of year.
“In the history of the lake, created in the early 1980s, this is the first time that this situation has been so serious,” said Boris Rouquet, farmer and water manager for the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions. Ariège, the region where Montbel Lake is located.
The lake has already seen difficult times “but this is exceptional,” Rouquet told CNN.
This story of extremes is one that is unfolding in whole swaths of Europe.
While in the United States, snow and rain that hit California helped fill reservoirs and ease the relentless drought, the winter was far from mild in many parts of Europe.
Still reeling from last year’s scorching summer and the worst drought in 500 years, parts of the continent have seen levels of snow and rain so low that fears are growing about what could happen next. the approach of summer – and beyond.
As climate change intensifies, scientists say we can expect droughts and heat waves to become more frequent and severe, putting enormous pressure on water resources.
Temperatures in southwestern France soared to 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, according to Météo-France, the country’s meteorological service. It was the hottest March day on record in the country since 1900, the agency said. And the warm start to the year is accompanied by exceptionally low rainfall.
Between January and February, France experienced more than 30 consecutive days without significant rainfall – the longest period since records began in 1959. In addition, snowfall has been very low, which means less snowmelt to recharge the rivers in the spring.
More rain fell in March but not enough. “Lac de Montbel remains at an abnormally low level,” Franck Solacroup, regional director of the Adour-Garonne Water Agency, which covers the area that includes Lac de Montbel, told CNN.
Farmers like Rouquet, who depend on the lake, have to make tough decisions about what to grow. Some have stopped sowing certain crops, others have sown more cereals in the hope of rain. Herders worry about having enough food for their animals, and some may even be forced to reduce their herds, Rouquet said.
“Unless the lake is sufficiently filled, farmers will not be able to irrigate and the survival of many farms is at stake,” he said. This hurts the morale of the farmers. “We often talk about the financial side but the human side is very affected.”
As summer approaches, the situation “does not bode well”, Solacroup said. Last year, nearly 400 municipalities in the region had restricted or disrupted the supply of drinking water.
Just across the border in Catalonia, northeast Spain, is a similar situation of dried up reservoirs and parched crops.
Average water levels in reservoirs in Catalonia are around 27% and some water restrictions are already in place.
The Sau reservoir, about 60 miles north of Barcelona, is only about 9% full, according to data from the Catalan Water Agency. As water levels fell, came the remains of a centuries-old village and its church, which were flooded when the reservoir was created in the 1960s.
In mid-March, the Catalan Water Agency began taking fish in an attempt to save some of them and protect water quality in what remains of the reservoir, of which more than five million people depend on for drinking water.
“This is an extraordinary measure…and is adopted to preserve water quality…and to be able to guarantee the demands of the population as much as possible,” the Catalan government said in a statement.
Water is so scarce that some farmers in the region have turned to prayer. On Sunday, hundreds of residents of the mountain village of L’Espunyola, about 70 miles north of Barcelona, led a procession to call on Our Lady of the Torrents to bring them rain.
Italy, located in the “climate hotspot” of the Mediterranean, was also hard hit.
In northern Italy, which last summer experienced its worst drought in more than 70 years, the mountains have low snow levels and lakes have shrunk, including Lake Como, which is less than 18% full. Water in the Po River, which meanders through the northern agricultural heartland, is near record highs, with some sections in “extreme drought”.
Farmers are feeling the pressure. Rice farmers expect the amount they will sow this spring to be the lowest in more than two decades, according to a survey by Enterisi, Italy’s national rice institution. “April and May will be crucial as the low rainfall in the winter months needs to be compensated for,” Enterisi said. spokesperson told CNN.
In Italy, the impacts of the climate crisis combined with aging water infrastructure and leaks make the country highly vulnerable to “critical water conditions”, Simona Ramberti, of the national statistics institute Istat, told CNN.
In 2020, more than 42% of the water in the system did not reach users, according to Istat’s urban water census. This equates to a daily loss of around 157 liters for each inhabitant, which could have met the needs of 43 million people for a year.
Considering last year’s drought, during which 10 regions announced a state of emergency for water deficits, Ramberti said the current dry spell “does not bode well for the months coming”.
“We observe a rather peculiar situation,” said Manuela Brunner, assistant professor of hydrology at ETH Zurich and the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland.
Looking out her office window in Davos, at an elevation of almost 1,600 meters (5,000 feet), Brunner said she could see a stretch of brown and green grass, but very little snow. “It’s the most extreme winter in terms of low snowfall,” she told CNN. “And that is a problem.”
Less water stored in snow means less snowmelt will reach rivers in the spring. “Snow deficits have become a bigger factor in summer droughts over the past 50 years,” Brunner said.
In Switzerland, they now need long-lasting rainy events, she said. “But the further we get into spring, the more unlikely that becomes.”
Large parts of Europe are hoping for rainfall over the next few months – and lots of it. “The coming weeks are crucial,” Andrea Toreti, a climatologist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, told CNN.
While it remains difficult to attribute specific events to the climate crisis, “what we observe is consistent with what we expect from climate change,” Toreti said.
Last year’s summer drought in the Northern Hemisphere was made 20 times more likely by climate change, according to World Weather Attribution, a group of researchers working in near real-time to determine the role played by the crisis. climate in extreme weather conditions. events.
Back in the southwest of France, Solacroup said the difficulties of the past year should be a warning to think about long-term adaptation, rather than just reacting to one crisis after another. “The summer of 2022, which may seem exceptional, will be an average year in 2050,” he said.
The long-term changes are clear and they’re not good, Rouquet said. “There is a link with climate change and we farmers have seen this for several years. The rain falls differently. It is raining hard or not at all.