Francesco Falconi stood at the edge of Lake Bracciano, a volcanic depression filled with crystalline water and surrounded by bucolic wooded hills and ancient Italian villages. “This is where I used to dive into the lake,” Falconi, a lawyer who grew up in one of those villages, says, pointing to a rock on the lake’s periphery. Jump from there today, and you would probably wake up in the nearest emergency room.
In 2017, Lake Bracciano, a basin of around 22 square miles, faced an existential crisis. It started to dry up as a local utility, the Acea Group, diverted its waters to quench the thirst of the Italian capital during a severe drought. Residents of the surrounding villages were able to stop the water company from draining the lake, but the damage was done. Habitat and ecosystems were lost, and the lake has never fully recovered. Now, they are bringing the company to court for environmental crimes.
The trial could set a precedent throughout Europe, by creating more public awareness about environmental crimes that involve water use and drainage, a long-overlooked issue, in addition to water pollution. It could inspire other small communities to fight to safeguard their natural havens and force big cities to find new solutions to deal with their water needs.
The Lazio region, where Rome and Lake Bracciano are located, is rich in lakes, rivers, and pristine springs, but frequent droughts, climate change, and terrible water management are creating a recurring state of crisis.
Lake Bracciano serves as an emergency water reservoir for Rome. The city meets two-thirds of all its water needs by tapping into the Peschiera springs at the base of Mount Nuria. These founts are very resilient to occasional droughts. Other sources are smaller and dry up faster, though in general, all the regional water sources, including Lake Bracciano, are steadily declining due to climate change.
In the first six months of 2017, a very dry year, the elevation of the water surface of Lake Bracciano fell by five feet as Acea kept tapping into the basin. It is normal for the surface of the lake to fluctuate between a height of 535 and 538 feet above sea level, but that summer it plummeted to 530 feet. It might seem a small change on paper, but five feet over 22 square miles adds up to a lot of water; the loss was enough to disrupt nearly everything around the lake. Ferries could no longer dock at piers. Stairs had to be built for people to disembark because of the shallow waters. And even after Acea stopped collecting water, Lake Bracciano kept shrinking. It had lost its normal equilibrium.
In 2018, the lake reached its nadir. The water surface fell by six-and-a-half feet in total. The shoreline retreated by a mile. The sight of the shoal between the lake’s normal shore and its new, shrunken state was ominously reminiscent of the Aral Sea, the enormous lake lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which almost disappeared due to the deadly combination of increased human thirst and climate change.
“The lake never goes down [below] a certain threshold,” Graziarosa Villani says. Villani is the president of the committee of local citizens that managed to save Lake Bracciano, thanks to the quick mobilization of scientists and lawyers. The group pressured the regional government, which stopped the draining. Acea appealed, but the “Cassazione,” the highest Italian court, upheld the decision.
During the trial, the people of Lake Bracciano were up against two giants: Acea, the local private company providing water to the region in a de-facto monopoly situation, and the city of Rome. But the law worked in their favor. According to its permits, Acea could draw from Lake Bracciano as long as the water surface did not drop under a certain level, to ensure that the basin did not enter a dangerous downward spiral. “But Acea did not stop there and went even further,” Villani says. “Who knows what would have happened without our intervention?”
The last decade has been hard on Lake Bracciano. Temperatures are rising in the region. Seasonal droughts are getting longer. This type of volcanic basin depends on rainwater, and until recently, Lake Bracciano had been resilient. Its water levels had remained stable over the years. Until Acea broke the spell. “That is why the company should have protected the resource and not wasted it,” Azzella says.
According to its own data, Acea loses large percentages of the water it collects and distributes through leaks in its distribution network. In 2017, it leaked up to 45 percent of all the water in the province of Rome. Today, that number is still well over 30 percent. No third party or regional authority has ever checked the accuracy of the figures released by Acea.
The people of Lake Bracciano argue that repairing the leaks alone could solve the recurrent water crisis and ease the pressure on the regional water sources. “You cannot think anymore that there will always be new water. It might never come back. It has been six years, and the lake has not recovered,” Azzella says.
Today, the lake is still three feet lower than its past healthy average. “It might never revert to its previous equilibrium,” explains Giampietro Casasanta, a researcher at the Italian National Research Council and a resident of Anguillara. Casasanta says his research shows that such a sudden water loss from the lake would not have occurred due to natural climatic and weather fluctuations alone.
In Italy, data about water levels is often publicly available. Indeed, the docks of Lake Bracciano have physical water scales. Historical data about precipitation are uploaded online as part of a grid of rain gauges connected to the SCIA, the National System for the Elaboration and Diffusion of Climate Data.
Acea knew that the basin was suffering from the effects of climate change; after all, it had released public documents in the months before the crisis showing those effects. But after the water levels of Lake Bracciano became a public controversy, the company downplayed the issue, even accusing the owners of gardens and structures along the shoreline of causing the crisis by “stealing” water. They were acquitted in court.
By Italian law, the Ministry of Environment and Energy Security is the only institution allowed to ask Acea for compensation, but it has refused to do so. This new trial could result in a fine for breaking environmental law, but it would not formally constitute compensation for the environmental damage.
The Italian legal system is extremely slow. The Acea criminal trial is predicted to last several years. It began in May, and in November it entered the hearing stage, with both parties presenting scientific evidence. The company is expected to trivialize the damage done to the ecosystem in an attempt to reduce its liability. However, the community of Lake Bracciano feels that science is on its side. Community members hope their work will inspire other communities in Europe to follow their steps in defending local waters.
“If Acea loses the case, it will have enormous consequences,” Falconi says. “It will set the legal precedent for other communities to fight.”
Editor's note: This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe.
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