How do we take care of our rivers?

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 Rio Simpson. Photo: Matias MondacaRio Simpson. Photo: Matias Mondaca

By Tamara Toro Teutsch

Editors Note: The following is from Issue 20.
I cast a fly that floats like a moth and wait as it drifts into the nearest pool. The water is flat as a mirror and in its reflection I can see the color of the sky changing from light blue to orange and then to lilac. Night falls. While we take down and put away our tackle, a kingfisher observes us from a fallen tree trunk on the opposite shore. We set off filled with that warm satisfaction of a good day’s fishing, carrying bags filled with hooks, improvised BBQ grills, cans and bottles that we found scattered everywhere. In addition to releasing all of the fish, we try to leave as little trace on the riverbank as possible.
Other days we have not been so lucky. We traipse several miles of river renowned for its good fishing and come across diggers that not only cloud up the water with sediment, making the fishing difficult, but that also completely change the course and pH of the water, disrupting the fishes’ habitat and ecosystem. Every time I visit a river I wonder if I it will be in the same state when I return to wade along its shores.
River shifts
It's six on a Wednesday afternoon on the Simpson River. Gabriel Benoit and his client decide to pack up for the day. The next day a digger will come work, silting up the river, and making it be very difficult, if not impossible, to fish for trout. Sand mining has become an increasingly common practice in Aysén’s rivers. As the region grows, some unscrupulous people have turned their attention to the region’s rivers to satisfy the voracious demand of the construction industry.
Concerned that this extraction activity was affecting their livelihoods, the association of fishing guides reached a river access agreement with construction firms leaving certain days for extraction and others for fishing. However, when companies do not respect this agreement, the only penalty they face is one less day of extractive work, for which they can easily compensate by working at a higher intensity on the other days.
Rio Simpson. Photo: Matias MondacaRio Simpson. Photo: Matias Mondaca
Although this situation has not affected fishing in the short term, the wake produced by the digging causes a layer of sediment to form that eventually affects the development of aquatic insects and the trout have to migrate to other areas in search of food. But perhaps more worrying is the fact that sand extraction can change the course of a river, which can lead to flooding and endanger buildings close to the river. Chile’s Hydraulic Works Department is in charge of analyzing the technical feasibility of extractive projects. However, it is the municipalities that are responsible for receiving applications and granting permits for the extraction of materials from a riverbed.
Minimal impact
In the words of Maude Barlow of The Blue Planet Project, "the best defenders of rivers and lakes are the local inhabitants.” Campaigns to defend water resources such as Patagonia Sin Represas and No Alto Maipo are supported by the actions of local communities and supported by organizations that are putting the debate on conservation of the biosphere into the public domain.
Coyhaique’s local residents are organizing themselves into pressure groups, which is further evidence that the best defenders of local water resources are those that are most affected by them. For several years now, a handful of river enthusiasts have been organizing clean-up days and last summer collected some five tons of garbage from the Simpson and Claro rivers.
In Chile, despite the control the private sector has over land ownership, Chilean law protects the right of the public to access beaches, lakeshores and riverbanks. The same applies for river estuaries, waterfalls and glaciers. Under the law, owners of land that is next to beaches, riverbanks and lakeshores must provide open access for tourism and fishing purposes when there are no other public roads. However, in practice this often does not occur. For that reason, there is now an online procedure through which the public can report incidents where access is denied or restricted. Fines range from $490,000 to $4,900,000 Chilean pesos (US$ 720 to US$ 7,195). Are we ready to assume the responsibilities that this right entails? Who will ensure the protection of these places? In my case, I will continue to pick up the trash I find and leave rivers in a better state than when I found them.

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