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The Saint Etienne de Vigan Dam
and the Maison Rouge Dam dismantled for Salmon

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Dam decommissioning in France
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more photos from deactivated dams

- Brives Charensac Dam (Haute Loire)

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Summer 1997 , St. Etienne de Vigan, France Photo:ERN European Rivers Network /SOS Loire Vivante

The Dam when it collapse 
(June 24, 1998, St. Etienne de Vigan, France)

Photo:ERN European Rivers Network/SOS Loire Vivante



The Dam just after the explosion !
(June 24, 1998, St. Etienne de Vigan, France) Photos: ERN European Rivers Network/ SOS Loire Vivan

8 weeks after removing the dam
(september 1998, St. Etienne de Vigan, France) Photo:ERN European Rivers Network Roberto Epple / SOS Loire Vivante

loire basin map

The Saint Etienne de Vigan dam

The Saint-Etienne-du-Vigan dam on the Upper Allier river, the main tributary of the Loire river, collapsed on June 24 at 5 P.M. It is the first time in France that a dam operated by Electricité de France (the French state-owned electricity utility ) has been destroyed in an effort to restore salmon habitat. 

 Located near the sources of the Allier River, Saint-Etienne-du-Vigan sterilized 70 acres of the basin's best salmon (Salmo salar) spawning grounds. Before this 44-foot-high dam was built in the late XIXth century, the surrounding villages produced approximately 10 tons of salmon per year, which contributed heavily to the local economy. The dam produced just 35 Mwh per year, a tiny fraction of the local electrical output. 

 In the fall 1997, the dam reservoir was emptied when a flood of about 2,800 cubic feet per second (80 cubic meters/sec.) occurred, which washed out the accumulated silt in the reservoir and minimized damage on the ecosystem downstream. Studies found no evidence of sudden pollution downstream, due to the low level of pollution of the reservoir sediments, as the reservoir is located in very little urbanized area and suffers hardly no pollution. The global cost of the demolition is an estimated FF14 million ($2,3 million*), including FF7,2 million ($1,2 million) to replace professional taxes formerly paid by EDF. This money will go for measures to improve the village’s habitat and tourism infrastructures. 

The decision to remove the dam was taken on January 4, 1994, when the « Plan Loire Grandeur Nature » was launched by the French government. This program, spurred by widespread opposition coordinated by the Loire Vivante network to a series of projected dams on the Loire river basin, planned several measures to save the remaining salmon population of the Loire basin, including demolition of another dam on the Loire basin, construction of a hatchery on the Upper Allier, suspension of all fishing and elimination of other obstacles to salmon migration. 

The other dam to be dismantled is the Maisons-Rouges, on the Vienne river, another tributary of the Loire river. The process has been slowed by the opposition of local politicians but the current French government has now scheduled a timetable for taking down this 15-foot-high hydroelectric dam which destroyed the Vienne river basin's entire 1,900 acres of spawning grounds : the works will begin next September 1998. 

The goal of the program to restore salmon population on the Loire basin is to have 6,000 adults return to the Loire estuary in the years 2008. In the XIXth century, approximately 100,000 Atlantic salmon would make the annual journey to their spawning grounds in the headwaters of France’s Loire River and its tributaries. After travelling an amazing 4,000 miles from Greenland in the North Atlantic ocean, they would swim upriver to spawn in clear waters. 

 In 1997, only 389 salmon were counted on the middle Allier River, the sole tributary in the Loire basin where salmon still return to spawn. Dams were the main cause for the spectacular drop in the salmon population. Young smolts swimming downstream to the ocean get lost in the slack waters of the reservoirs or chopped up in turbines or pumps; adults swimming upstream are foiled by dam walls or indequate fish ladders. Numerous dams in the Loire basin have destroyed habitat and blocked the fish from their spawning grounds. 

Atlantic salmon have disappeared from all large rivers on the European Atlantic coast: the Rhine, the Thames, the Elbe, and others. This makes the tiny Loire stock a precious genetic pool for reintroducing salmon in other large European rivers because it the only salmon in Europe which is able to swim upriver for such long distances (more than 600 miles).(* rate used : 1$ = 6 FF)


more information on St. Etienne de Vigan



Photo Maisons rouge dam destruction
The Maisons rouges dam during 
the destruction,
October 1998
Photo: ERN European Rivers Network, 

Roberto Epple



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The maison rouge dam

The Vienne river, the second most important tributary of the Loire river after the Allier, is flowing freely again in the area where it was blocked by the Maisons-Rouges dam. The demolition of this 3,80 meter-high dam is indeed almost over and the Vienne has regained the level it had before the dam was built in 1923. Salmon (Salmo salar)  and other migratory fish such as eels and shads will again be able to swim upriver and reach their former spawning grounds on the Vienne river basin, which represents a fifth of the whole Loire basin.

The works, which were decided as part of « the « Plan Loire Grandeur Nature » in January 1994 inspired by the campaign led by the Loire Vivante network, were launched in the middle of June 1998, after a few years of conflicts due to local political opposition. The destruction of the right part of the dam allowed the reservoir to be emptied and the river to flow freely ; it was finished in mid-September 1998. The demolition of the rest of the dam - its left part, consisting in various inefficient fishladders and the hydroelectric buildings - will be over at the end of the year. End of September, a program for the restoration of the riverbanks was launched, which  required 45,000 m3 of backfill and 7,500 tons of rocks. This will be followed by a phase of plantation which will give their natural character back to the banks.

The works, amounting to FF10 million (about $1.6 million), have been supervized by EDF (the French state-owned electricity utility), as was the case with the demolition of the Saint-Etienne-du-Vigan dam on the Upper Allier, which has also been dismantled as part of the salmon restoration program of the « Plan Loire Grandeur Nature ». The same amount will be spent on measures  meant to replace professional taxes formerly paid by EDF. Blueprints for economic, touristic or environmental development projects have been formulated, but no decision has been taken yet.

This operation should enable salmon and other migratory fish to come back on the Vienne river and its tributaries. At the end of the XIXth century, salmon had about 800 hectares of spawning grounds on the Vienne basin. The 365-km-long Vienne has tributaries which are ideal for salmon, notably the Creuse which itself receives the Gartempe. An important salmon restoration program was launched on the Gartempe in 1975, but it has had very few positive results because of the inefficiency of the Maisons-Rouges fishladders.

The demolition of the Maisons-Rouges dam, together with that of the Saint-Etienne-du-Vigan dam, the construction of an efficient fishladder on the Vichy dam and the efforts undertaken to improve other small obstacles to salmon migration, indicate the program to save the Loire and Allier salmon is under way. However, the species will be saved only when the salmon hatchery programmed on the Upper Allier, which is several years late, is built. In 1997, only 389 salmon were counted on the middle Allier river, the sole tributary of the Loire were salmon still returned to spawn before Maisons-Rouges was destroyed.

* Rate used : 1 $ = 6 FF ( 1 Euro = 6.6 FF)

more information on Maison rouge