River Lot to be severed from waterways network

On 12th September 2017 the Conseil Départemental of Lot-et-Garonne [CDLG] issued a letter (see foot of page) to local hire boat companies, announcing withdrawal of the service operating the Garonne Crossing. This means that access to the lower section of the River Lot from the Canal de Garonne – and by extension, from the complete French waterways network – will no longer be feasible, as explained on our page for the Garonne Crossing.

This short-sighted action, allegedly saving 160 000 € p.a. of costs associated with maintaining satisfactory channel depth in the Garonne and providing pilots to guide and assist boats making the river passage between Saint-Léger and Nicole, makes worthless much of the 120m€ investment made since 1993 (equivalent to 200m€ today) along the River Lot.

The River Lot in sections

The River Lot is France’s seventh longest river, used to a degree since Roman times and, during its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, navigable and busy for 266km. If, as was planned and budgeted in 1993, a significant length of river was fully reopened (it closed in 1926) it would undoubtedly be France’s finest river navigation, attracting praise, attention, and sustainable and appropriate economic activity. This opinion is reinforced by the success of one of the restored sections, through Cahors and past Saint-Cirq-Lapopie.

(below) River Lot map showing (a) the Lower Lot through Villeneuve, (b) the Middle Section through Puy l’Evêque, (c) the Cahors Section, plus (d) the short length in Aveyron at the historic limit of navigation.

That 64km Cahors section (originally, now 74km) is highly popular. The other two sections – the 75km of the Lower Lot from the Garonne almost to Fumel and the 42km of mid-section Lot from above Fumel to a few km below Luzech – could also be. If these sections were joined, and of course accessible using a fully viable Garonne Crossing, the 200km waterway could have far-reaching impacts that are in all probability underestimated.

The two obstacles to this hugely beneficial result lie at Fumel, where historically contaminated ground and river bed would be expensive to clear in order to construct a new lock and at Luzech, where a former short canal through the village, by-passing a long shallow loop in the river, has been infilled. Neither problem would be insurmountable. Luzech is the more difficult to overcome, but just as the engineers tackled it with panache 150 years ago, solutions could be designed and built today.

In the short term, connecting the lower 75km with the mid-section 42km by dealing with the Fumel problem (there are imaginative proposals that avoid the contaminated ground problem) would undoubtedly make the combined 120km section independently viable for hire boating (which it currently isn’t) and solving the Garonne Crossing problem would properly reopen the Lot to hire and pleasure boaters from elsewhere in Nouvelle Aquitaine and the rest of the 9000km French waterway network. It would be extremely successful.

The Garonne Crossing

It is necessary to traverse the River Garonne in order to gain access to the lower section of the River Lot which flows into the Garonne near Nicole.

Baise-Garonne-Lot crossing
Garonne crossing, looking upriver in high summer. Shallows can been seen. (click to enlarge)

Historically, boats intending to make the often uncertain passage, downstream with the current, to Bordeaux would only have joined the Garonne from the Baïse or the Lot when conditions were suitable; when there was sufficient depth of water – that is, in late autumn, winter or spring. It is possible that there was little, or no, traffic between the Lot and the Baïse and that some boats would not attempt the difficult upstream journey back from Bordeaux.

In the late 1990s a decision was taken to dig an artificial channel in the bed of the river between Saint-Léger, at the confluence of the River Baïse (where an existing lock would need to be altered), and Nicole. This channel was necessary to pass through a section of geologically hard river bed and two sections of shifting gravel shallows where the Baïse, and then the Lot, join the Garonne. It was also intended that this dug channel would maintain navigation during summer months when the Garonne water level was low, but when visitor demand to make the crossing would be high.

That this was an artificial alteration to the river between two confluences, each subject to significant variations in patterns of flow and sedimentation, gives an immediate clue to the current situation. The channel is unsustainable without a commitment to regular attention to maintain depth and width, and always has been. Because the opening through the sill is relatively narrow, this significantly increases the power and velocity of river flow passing through it. In addition, the potentially difficult and shifting nature of the channel means that expert guidance from professional river pilots is necessary to assist inexperienced hire-boaters to make the passage.

This is a self-fulfilling downward spiral; the channel has not been maintained, which means that it becomes ever less reliable, which means that fewer boats take the trouble to use it, which means that there is less reason to invest effort and expense in maintaining it. And so it goes on, to the current situation where the département has decided to withdraw its service. «Quand on veut tuer son chien, on l’accuse d’avoir la rage.» (When you want to kill your dog, you accuse it of having rabies.)

Canalet

Garonne crossing and possible new canal link (map by David Edwards-May, on OpenStreetMap base)

Another clue lies in the Canalet, a 2.5km canal constructed in the 19th century from Aiguillon to Nicole, as part of other historic navigational improvements to the Lot, necessary to bypass the lowest point of the Lot and its confluence with the Garonne, where shallows make navigation impossible. The Canalet not only exactly avoids the problematic river section where the channel was cut through the sill, but joins the Garonne at Nicole downstream from that section where depths are consistent and navigation is reliably and naturally feasible for most of the year.

Monheurt

Instead of the ill-considered 1996 Baïse lock and river channel decision (that has become unviable within the short space of 20 years), a decision to construct a 1.7km branch canal between the Canal de Garonne and the River Garonne close by the small historic river port of Monheurt would have been both financially sensible and would have practically guaranteed visitor access during summer and autumn months, economically sensible too.

Investment, expectation and decline

First mooted in the 1970s, but starting in 1987, the River Lot has seen a substantial multi-million euro investment in improvement, repair and renovation both on and beside the water. Of particular concern in the light of the Garonne Crossing decision, is the Lower Lot, 75km in length.

The river was formerly made navigable through a series of locks and barrages, constructed up until the mid-19th century. In 1926 navigation was abandoned and in 1951 large deep hydro-electric dams were built at Castelmoron and at Villeneuve. Neither included locks, what were then obvious reasons.

Castelmoron lock and dam
1996 lock constructed to side of 1951 hydroelectric dam at Castelmoron-sur-Lot (© Philippe Lasvenes, 2001, for Euromapping)

In the late 1990s (in addition to the dredging of the Garonne channel) an important and hugely expensive part of the renovation plan was to engineer deep locks beside each of these dams, respectively 10m and 13m deep. An entirely new port de plaisance and holiday village – Port Lalande – was created near Castelmoron and new quaysides and other facilities created at Saint-Sylvestre/Port de Penne.

Port Lalande
Port Lalande shortly after it opened (© Pierre Lasvenes for Euromapping)

In fact, these are just the most significant elements in the plan, as implemented. They were matched by many smaller initiatives – new pontoons and services, and other riverside facilities and attractions encouraged by the imaginative waterway project.

For a while such optimism appeared well-grounded. Hire boats frequently made the crossing from the bases on the Canal de Garonne at Agen, Buzet, Meilhan, Le Mas d’Agenais and Pont des Sables. Hire bases flourished at Port Lalande and Port de Penne. The resulting economic well-being for towns, villages and enterprises such as restaurants was substantial, along the lower river exactly as was being experienced (and still is) along the Cahors section.

However, the predictable Garonne Crossing problems meant that during the ensuing decade fewer and fewer boats cared to make the passage to and from the Lot, especially with the fear that making the trip would leave boats stranded one side or the other. Hire boating from Port Lalande became commercially unviable and the base closed down, as eventually also happened at Port de Penne. By 2016 traffic had declined to just 50 return passages compared with 300 in 2003. Boat numbers using the river have declined dramatically, facilities have been withdrawn or ceased to be maintained and riverside business has suffered greatly. Passages through the two deep locks at the dams are minimal, although they still have to be manned.

The recent decision made by the CDLG could be the final nail in the coffin. Unless, that is, VNF now takes responsibility for maintenance of the crossing (the Garonne is classed as a navigable waterway) and provision of pilotage. This seems unlikely.

Notification

The CDLG initially notified only some selected hire boat firms and was resistant to confirming otherwise, to other interested parties.

Along the most relevant 75km length of lower River Lot there are towns, villages, enterprises and pleasure boat owners who will be adversely affected by the decision, who have yet to receive any communication and who, when they do, will have only weeks to assess and respond. This is, of course, particularly relevant for pleasure boaters who may have to make immediate plans to depart the river, catching the last available crossing of the Garonne, when it becomes feasible in late October or early November. The consequences of not doing so would mean very expensive lifting-out and road transportation to ‘the other side’.

There are also at least two passenger-carrying boats on the lower Lot each of which has to be inspected periodically. There are no suitable lift-out or dry dock facilities on the river to enable hull inspections – boats normally go to the VNF port at Toulouse for this. Now they will not be able to.

[NOTE: the initial letter reproduced below was later followed up by provisions to allow boats to make the crossing up to January 26, 2018; see our Garonne Crossing page)