SIRMIONE – Italy’s worst drought in decades has reduced Lake Garda, the country's largest lake, to near its lowest level ever recorded, exposing swaths of previously underwater rocks and warming the water to temperatures that approach the average in the Caribbean Sea.
Tourists flocking to the popular northern lake Friday for the start of Italy’s key summer long weekend found a vastly different landscape than in past years. An expansive stretch of bleached rock extended far from the normal shoreline, ringing the southern Sirmione Peninsula with a yellow halo between the green hues of the water and the trees on the shore.
“We came last year, we liked it, and we came back this year,” tourist Beatrice Masi said as she sat on the rocks. “We found the landscape had changed a lot. We were a bit shocked when we arrived because we had our usual walk around, and the water wasn’t there.”
Northern Italy hasn’t seen significant rainfall for months, and snowfall this year was down 70%, drying up important rivers like the Po, which flows across Italy's agricultural and industrial heartland. Many European countries, including Spain, Germany, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Britain, are enduring droughts this summer that have hurt farmers and shippers and promoted authorities to restrict water use.
The parched condition of the Po, Italy's longest river, has already caused billions of euros in losses to farmers who normally rely on it to irrigate fields and rice paddies.
To compensate, authorities allowed more water from Lake Garda to flow out to local rivers — 70 cubic meters (2,472 cubic feet) of water per second. But in late July, they reduced the amount to protect the lake and the financially important tourism tied to it.
With 45 cubic meters (1,589 cubic feet) of water per second being diverted to rivers, the lake on Friday was 32 centimeters (12.6 inches) above the water table, near the record lows in 2003 and 2007.
Garda Mayor Davide Bedinelli said he had to protect both farmers and the tourist industry. He insisted that the summer tourist season was going better than expected, despite cancellations, mostly from German tourists, during Italy’s latest heat wave in late July.
“Drought is a fact that we have to deal with this year, but the tourist season is in no danger,” Bendinelli wrote in a July 20 Facebook post.
He confirmed the lake was losing two centimeters (.78 inches) of water a day.
The lake's temperature, meanwhile, has been above average for August, according to seatemperature.org. On Friday, the Garda's water was nearly 26 degrees Celsius (78 degrees Fahrenheit), several degrees warmer than the average August temperature of 22 C (71.6 F) and nearing the Caribbean Sea's average of around 27 C (80 F).
For Mario Treccani, who owns a lakefront concession of beach chairs and umbrellas, the lake's expanded shoreline means fewer people are renting his chairs since there are now plenty of rocks on which to sunbathe.
“The lake is usually a meter or more than a meter higher,” he said from the rocks.
Pointing to a small wall that usually blocks the water from the beach chairs, he recalled that on windy days, sometimes waves from the lake would splash up onto the tourists.
“It is a bit sad. Before, you could hear the noise of the waves breaking up here. Now, you don’t hear anything,” he said.
Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome.
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