Hooded Grebe threatened by Argentinian dam projects

Hooded Grebe was only discovered 42 years ago, but has been fending off threats ever since. Photo: franalverja (commons.wikimedia.org).
Hooded Grebe was only discovered 42 years ago, but has been fending off threats ever since. Photo: franalverja (commons.wikimedia.org).
An emergency motion was passed at the weekend appealing to the Argentinian Government to save the Critically Endangered Hooded Grebe from badly-planned hydroelectric dams.

Conservationists at the current IUCN World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawaii, gave an international commitment on Saturday to give fresh hope for the bird species, which was only discovered 42 years ago and was immediately known to be under threat.

Hooded Grebe was already under pressure from the spread of invasive species and, with less than 500 breeding pairs remaining, is facing a new and imminent threat from the proposed construction of two hydroelectric dams on the Santa Cruz River, Argentina, warned conservation organisation Aves Argentinas.

Found only on remote lakes in the Patagonian wilderness during the breeding season, Hooded Grebe was thought to be largely isolated from human threats. However, in winter it feeds in just three limited areas – one being the estuary of the Santa Cruz River, now threatened by the proposed dams.

The Hooded Grebe is in severe trouble, having declined by over 80 per cent in the last 25 years due to the introduction of American Mink, which has decimated the Patagonian breeding colonies. Aves Argentinas has set up teams of volunteer ‘Colony Guardians’ who watch over the breeding sites and has been working for more than seven years on the conservation of the species, developing an intensive invasive predator control programme and investing nearly US$ 500,000. In 2013, the Argentinian Government declared a new 52,000 hectare protected area, the Patagonian National Park, in part to protect the breeding colonies of the Hooded Grebe.

Buildings have already been erected along the river's banks to house construction workers for the hydroelectric scheme, but no damage to the river has yet been seen. However, on 9 September it was made public to the Argentinian media that President Macri will be relaunching the dam proposal next week.

“The time to act is now,” said Patricia Zurita, Chief Executive of BirdLife International. “We cannot afford to lose the habitat of Argentina’s beloved Macá Tobiano (Hooded Grebe)”.

The development is currently moving forward without any proper Environmental Impact Assessment or being conducted by the Santa Cruz government. The river named after this region is Argentina’s only glacial river and, following new information compiled by Aves Argentinas, the area downstream was recently declared an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area and global Key Biodiversity Area due to its ecological richness.

The river carries a huge amount of fertile sediment downstream to the estuary, but with two dams blocking this natural process, there will be a complete change to the water's flow and the aquatic ecosystems of the area, resulting in the loss of wintering habitat and changes in food availability. In addition to the Hooded Grebe, the estuary harbours three other species listed as Near Threatened – Magellanic Penguin, Chilean Flamingo and Magellanic Plover – as well as many others like the endangered Nearctic subspecies of Knot.

Ana Di Pangracio of Aves Argentinas proposed an emergency motion calling for a suspension of dam construction until suitable and updated Environmental Impact and Strategic Environmental Assessments have been completed; this was immediately passed by the assembled delegates.

Speaking earlier at the Congress, Sergio Bergman, Argentinian Minister for Environment, said that Argentina has returned to the international conservation stage, and insisted that Argentina remains committed to the goal of “zero extinction”. The action resulting from this new motion will be the first test of this commitment for Hooded Grebe.

In Argentina, a coalition of NGOs, including Aves Argentinas and FARN, has formed to discuss the issues presented by the impact of the dams planned for the Santa Cruz River, and to analyse in depth the necessity and feasibility of the project before it is too late. The proposed dams are linked to foreign investment, and would be constructed by a consortium of companies: Argentinian-based Electroingeniería and Hidrocuyo, alongside the Chinese Gezhouba Group Corporation.

The possibility of building the hydroelectric dams was originally investigated in 1950, but scrapped because of their cost and high environmental impact. The dams are still considered low priority in Argentina’s future energy mix.