What do Patagonia's disappearing lakes have to do with President Obama's upcoming trip to Chile? You'd be surprised.

On March 5-6, Lake Cachet 2, in Chile’s Patagonia, disappeared.  On March 21-22, President Obama will visit Santiago to meet with Chilean President Piñera. 

What do these two seemingly unrelated events have in common?  Both are real examples of why Chile should not allow HidroAysén, or other poorly-planned conventional energy plants, to be built.

Let me explain:

Lake Cachet 2 didn’t disappear, exactly.  It drained, flooding down the Colonia River and then into the Baker River en route to the Pacific.  This type of event is called a glacial lake outburst flood, or GLOF, and I’ve written about this phenomenon before in more detail.  It occurs when melting glacial water builds up behind an obstacle (usually the glacier itself), to the point when it can no longer be contained and the water pushes through or over the obstacle to rush downstream. 

These flooding events can be unpredictable and destructive to ecosystems, human populations and infrastructure along the rivers where they occur.  In addition to the force of the flood and higher water levels, GLOFs transport huge amounts of sediment downstream.  This can threaten the operation and safety of infrastructure, like hydroelectric dams, if they are not properly engineered to withstand the flood’s high water flows and the concentration of sediments.  Patagonia’s glaciers are melting at a faster rate than in other parts of the world, and as a consequence, GLOFs are occurring much more frequently in the local river systems than ever before.  Until 2008, the Colonia River hadn’t seen a GLOF in over 40 years; since 2008, there have been seven, including this most recent one. 

HidroAysén, the company proposing to build five dams on Patagonia’s two wildest rivers, the Pascua and the Baker, should therefore have thoroughly assessed the threats that the GLOFs on the Colonia and Baker Rivers would pose to the viability of the project in its environmental impact statement.  To put it simply, they didn’t.  I’ve described the insufficiencies in their assessment before, but to summarize:  they used incorrect data and study periods, and all but ignored the topic completely in their most recent environmental review this past November.  

GLOFs are important because they are a concrete example of the shoddy quality of HidroAysén’s work.  If the company cannot create a good environmental impact assessment in more than two years, what would the quality of their dams and 1300 mile-long transmission line be?  In this sense, GLOFs are very real illustration of why HidroAysén should not be built.

Instead of looking to large conventional energy plants like HidroAysén (which would generate 2750 MW) or Castilla, a proposed 2100 MW coal-fired power plant, to meet Chile’s future electric demand, the government should focus on the fostering of non-conventional renewables* and energy efficiency.

Fortunately, one of the main topics that Presidents Obama and Piñera will discuss when they are together in Santiago will be energy.  Obama will also visit Brazil and El Salvador on his trip to Latin America, but his selection of Chile as the country in which to address energy is a testament to US confidence that Chile could be a partner in building strong and clean non-conventional energy sectors.

My colleague, Noah Long, has described the ways in which Chile has failed to deliver on its clean energy potential.  Obama’s visit is the perfect opportunity for Piñera to step up and change that by passing an obligatory renewable portfolio standard, prioritizing energy efficiency, and saying no to destructive conventional energy plants.  Hopefully, President Obama will encourage these steps during his visit.  

The disappearance of Lake Colonia and the appearance of President Obama are two very different events that illustrate a common message to Chile’s government:  HidroAysén should not be built.  Instead, Chile should work with the US to develop its abundant alternatives –non-conventional renewables and efficiency—and, by doing so, become a leader in these sectors.

*In Chile, the term “non-conventional renewable energy” is used to exclude hydropower above 20 MW from other renewables. “Conventional energy” includes hydro above 20 MW.