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Italy’s salty Po delta hurts agriculture and fishing


PORTO TOLLE, Italy – Drought and unusually hot weather have increased salinity in Italy’s largest delta, where the mighty Po River flows into the Adriatic Sea south of Venice, and it’s killing rice paddies as well as seashells which are a key ingredient in one of Italy’s culinary specialties: spaghetti with clams.

At least a third of the stock of double valve clams reared in the Po delta is dead. Plants along the banks of the Po River are withering as they drink water from increasingly saline aquifers and secondary waterways have dried up, shrinking habitats for amphibians and birds.

“It is obvious that there is a whole system with an ecology that will have permanent problems,” said Giancarlo Mantovani, director of the Po 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 is at an all time low, reaching just 95 cubic meters (3,350 cu ft) per second last month, due to drought conditions caused by a lack of winter snow and spring and summer rains. . This is one tenth of the annual averages. It has been nearly two months since farmers have been able to draw water from the river for farming.

The impact may be even more lasting, as saltwater flows unprecedented distances inland and seeps into aquifers, underground layers of rock that can hold water.

And if deltas are by definition an exchange zone between fresh and salt water, the movement is becoming more and more unidirectional: the interior penetration of salt water has increased from two kilometers (a little more than a mile) in the 1960s to 10 kilometers (six miles) in the 1980s to 38 kilometers (almost 24 miles) this year.

“The territory around the Po is three meters below sea level, so there is a continuous flow of salt water going into the aquifers,” Mantovani said. “So we are not only creating an agricultural problem, a human problem, but also an environmental problem. …It’s a perfect storm.

For clam farmers, excessive salinity, high temperatures and the resulting spread of algae are suffocating the mollusc that is the centerpiece of one of Italy’s favorite summer dishes: spaghetti alle vongole. And none are more prized than the striped and grooved shell vongole veraci that is farmed in the Adriatic Sea.

“You can see the clams are hurting,” said Katisucia Bellan, who has been clam-crunching for 27 years. “In the afternoon, with this heat, the lagoon dries up. You can pass with the tractor here.

According to agricultural lobby Coldiretti, this year’s mass mortality could accelerate if the proper exchange of salt and fresh water is not restored. He blames the inability to remove sediment from the delta, which allows oxygen and fresh water to enter the lagoon, for making the situation worse.

Meanwhile, clam farmers fearing more stock could die rushed to market when they still had shellfish to sell. This abundance has driven prices down, creating more economic hardship. “There is a double negative effect: mass mortality and falling prices,” said Alessandro Faccioli of Coldiretti.

Nearby rice farmers are also watching the rise in salinity with increasing anxiety. The rice fields of the Po delta represent a small part of Italy’s domestic rice production, which is centered in drought-stricken Piedmont and Lombardy closer to the source of the Po. While the biggest producers suffer from the lack of water in their fields, those in the delta suffer from the increase in salt content, which kills the plants.

Producer Elisa Moretto, who runs a small family business, hopes to recoup a third of her harvest this year, but that remains to be seen. Whether it can turn a profit depends on other forces, including rising fuel and fertilizer costs.

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

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

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