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Solving the thorny issue of irrigation with water from the Moselle

Summer droughts are no longer the exception, but are becoming the rule. Vineyards and winemakers have been forced to adapt to climate change, as have the public authorities. On both sides of the Moselle, efforts are being made to devise a simplified procedure to irrigate land with river water if required.

Last year, Luxembourg saw record levels of heat and drought. The Administration of Technical Agricultural Services (ASTA) reported mean temperatures for meteorological spring (March, April and May) 0.7°C higher than the mean for 1981-2010 (10.8°C versus 10.1°C in Remich and 10.5°C versus 9.8°C in Grevenmacher). The most dramatic rise was seen in April, when the mean temperature was 2.5°C higher in Grevenmacher (12°C versus 9.5°C) and as much as 2.9°C higher in Remich (12.7°C versus 9.8°C). This heat was accompanied by dry spells, with not a single drop of rainwater falling anywhere in the Grand Duchy for over a month between 22 March and 27 April.

Summer was also memorable in terms of the weather. Record temperatures of 36°C were recorded on 31 July, and consistent maximum temperatures of 35°C were seen until 13 August. Moving on to September, ASTA reported temperatures of 34.2°C in Grevenmacher and 34.1°C in Remich on 15 September, which are all-time records. Scientists have never observed such extremes since 1888, when records began. The entire summer was also blighted by droughts. Rainfall finally returned in mid-September during the harvest, when storms soaked the hillsides at a time when winemakers could have done without them.

Admittedly, grapevines are among the plant species that adapt best to heat, sun, and water shortages. However, this sudden change in climate will certainly not be without consequences. Old vines that have had sufficient time to develop vast root systems don’t need any support. Although excessive heat may stunt these plants’ growth and limit yield, they are capable of digging deep and surviving. 

This is not at all the case for young vines, particularly those under four or five years old. If they are unable to draw sufficient water from the subsoil, winemakers must water them to prevent them from withering and potentially dying. However, under current regulations, it is extremely difficult to secure permission to draw water from the Moselle, and in emergencies, tap water must therefore be used for this purpose. According to Ern Schumacher, chairman of the independent winegrowers: “Not only is this expensive, with the tax on waste water representing an additional cost, but it also involves wasting a resource that is not intended for this purpose.”

However, the government is aware of the situation and is trying to identify solutions. Indeed, it makes no sense to allow a situation to continue, in which approval from the authorities in Luxembourg (the Water Management Agency, part of the Environment Ministry) and Germany is required to extract water from the Moselle on the grounds that the Moselle marks the border between the two countries and is therefore shared. Moreover, since German federal powers on this issue are devolved to the states, approval from the Saarland Landesamt für Umwelt-und Arbeitsschutz is required if you’re based between Schengen and Remich and from the Rhineland Palatinate Struktur-und Genehmigungsdirektion Nord (SGD Nord) if you’re based between Remich and Wasserbillig.

It involves wasting a resource that is not intended for this purpose.

Since water shortages are clearly set to continue during the summer months, the various stakeholders have begun to cooperate on identifying a solution that benefits everyone. “Since autumn, discussions have been held between the Luxembourg Water Management Agency and SGD Nord to identify a simple, common approach meeting a number of criteria,” said Luxembourg Environment Minister Carole Dieschbourg in response to a parliamentary question on 15 February. Her recommended solution “that a single application for authorisation should be made by one applicant on behalf of all winemakers at the start of the season and individual water withdrawals should subsequently be declared in order for withdrawal tax to be charged,” should largely simplify the issue.

 However, the current situation is not exactly conducive to holding meetings between representatives from various backgrounds. Early in the year, for example, a new meeting had to be cancelled due to Covid. Details also need to be ironed out, particularly in terms of the nature of applicants. Winemakers in Rhineland-Palatinate are apparently considering setting up a dedicated syndicate. Such moves should also be examined in Luxembourg and Saarland.

Will the talks be sufficiently detailed and productive to enable Luxembourgish and German winemakers to water their young vines directly from the Moselle as early as this summer? Although this is by no means guaranteed, the goodwill is undoubtedly there, which is a good start. 

Whatever the outcome, winemakers are already aware that even if their wishes granted, water withdrawal will be strictly monitored and charged for (€12 per cubic metre). Moreover, there will be no question of pumping water from tributaries, since only the Moselle flows at sufficient speed in summer.

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