The salty Po River delta in Italy is detrimental to agriculture and fisheries

Porto Tol Drought and unusually hot weather have increased salinity in Italy’s largest delta, where the mighty Po River feeds the Adriatic south of Venice, killing rice fields along with the oysters that are a staple of an Italian culinary specialty: spaghetti with clams.

At least one-third of the stock of double-valve oysters raised in the Delta Po has vanished. Plants along the banks of the Po River began to wilt as they drank water from increasingly saline aquifers and secondary waterways dried up, shrinking amphibians and bird houses in the wetlands.

“Obviously there is a whole system with an environment that is going to have lasting problems,” said Giancarlo Mantovani, director of the Po River Basin Authority. The ecosystem includes the Po Delta Park, which together with the neighboring lands of Veneto forms a reserve recognized by UNESCO for its biodiversity.

The amount of water entering the delta from the Po River reached an all-time low, at just 95 cubic meters (3,350 cubic feet) per second last month, due to drought conditions caused by lack of winter ice and spring and summer rains. This is one tenth of the annual averages. It has been nearly two months since the farmers were able to utilize the river’s water for farming.

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The effect may be more permanent, as salt water seeps into previously unrecorded inland spaces and seeps into aquifers, which are the layers of underground rock that can trap water.

While the delta is by definition a zone of exchange between fresh water and salt water, the movement is becoming more and more one-way: inland salt water penetration has increased from two kilometers (just over a mile) in the 1960s and 10 kilometers (six kilometers) in the 1980s to 38 kilometers (about 24 miles) this year.

“The area around the Po River is three meters below sea level, so there is a constant flow of saline water that goes into the aquifers,” said Mantovani. So we are not only creating an agricultural problem, a human problem, but also an environmental problem. …this is a perfect storm.”

For oyster growers, excessive salinity, high temperatures, and the resulting infestation of algae choke off the slugs that are a cornerstone of one of Italy’s favorite summer dishes: spaghetti alle vongole. And nothing is more valuable than the striped and fluted shell vongole veraci raised in the Adriatic.

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“You can see the clam is hurting,” said Katisusia Bilan, who has been screaming for 27 years. “In the afternoon, with this heat, the lake dries up. You can pass by with jars here.”

According to the Coldiretti Agricultural Lobby, this year’s death could accelerate if the proper exchange of salt and fresh water is not restored. She blames the failure to remove sediment from the delta, allowing oxygen and fresh water to enter the lake, which worsened the situation.

In the meantime, clam farmers, worried that more stock might be spent, rushed to the market while they still had the mollusks to sell. This glut led to lower prices, and created more economic hardship. “There is a double negative effect: prices stop and prices fall,” said Alessandro Facioli of Coldiretti.

Nearby rice farmers are also watching the salinity rise with increasing concern. The Po delta fields are a small part of Italy’s national rice production, which is concentrated in the drought-stricken Piedmont region and Lombardy near the source of the Po River. While large producers suffer from a lack of water in their fields, those in the delta suffer from increased salt content, which leads to the death of plants.

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Farmer Elisa Moretto, who runs a small family business, is hoping they can save a third of their crop this year, but that’s not clear yet. If you manage to turn a profit, it’s down to other factors, including increased fuel and fertilizer costs.

But the real concern is for the future, if salinity rises and causes permanent damage to aquifers.

“If that happens, everything dies,” Moretto said.

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