The Diminishing Aquifer in the Northern Drôme

Fernanda Eberstadt

Landscape near Dieulefit, February 2022. Photo © Joris Gruaz / Alamy

It seemed a curious thing to boast about, how ancient your water was. When we moved to the northern Drôme eighteen years ago, the man at the water board told us that what comes out of the tap is twelve thousand years old, deposited when the glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age. It was pure, bracing and plentiful.

Water – steady rainfall, snowmelt from the Alps – is one reason the northern Drôme has been good agricultural land. Our first autumn, we prepared the ground for a permaculture kitchen garden, where apples, currants, melons and twenty varieties of tomato, irrigated by well water, would coexist with snails, voles and earthworms. But now the northern Drôme’s wells, springs and rivers are running dry. The last time it snowed was a storm in November 2019, which brought down plane trees and powerlines all over the region.

At the bottom of our land is the Herbasse river, a tributary of the Isère. Adrien Guionnet is a technician at the local body responsible for managing the river. ‘The Herbasse has a two hundred square kilometre watershed,’ he told me. ‘Normally it gets recharged by winter rains and snow, but it’s been drawn down by accumulated years of drought. This year there are twenty kilometres of dry stretches on the Herbasse – unprecedented! Everyone blames agriculture and industry, but even at its source in the Chambaran’ – a deep forest frequented only by deer, boar and mushroom hunters – ‘the river’s dry.’

This has been the hottest year in recorded French history. In June we had ripe tomatoes – two months early – and ate the prodigies with a kind of dread. July had the least rainfall France has ever measured. Following a parched autumn, winter and spring, this deficit means that once again the summer drought was classified a national emergency. In the Drôme, the prefecture decreed a 40 per cent cut in water use across the board, though people complain that farmers and factories keep doing as they please.

There have been incidents of water theft, including from a forest firefighters’ reserve – in a year when more than sixty thousand hectares nationwide have gone up in smoke. There was talk of slowing production at the nuclear power plant at Tricastin because there wasn’t enough water to cool the reactors.

There’s a climate border you cross, coming up from the Mediterranean. It carves the Drôme in half. Just shy of the 45th latitude you’re still in Provence – bare limestone crags, lavender fields, the acid light that northerners crave. Then at 45° you pass into a semi-continental haze: a more workaday Arcadia of big rivers, fertile valleys, deep-breathing shade trees – oaks, limes, beeches. The villages are ugly but the farms are beautiful: tall square houses, built of golden boulder clay, that sit well in the land, their sheds stacked with firewood for the winters.

I went to see my neighbour Guillaume Robin in mid-August, the day he’d finished his pear harvest and was off to help his wife unload the honey from her hives at Dieulefit. His family has farmed the land for generations. In his grandfather’s time, it was a small mixed production: fruit trees, tobacco, livestock, grain. ‘The distance between my rows of maize is still that of a cart horse’s backside,’ he said. Walnuts are the traditional crop: a few miles north-east they have their own appellation controllée.

In the last couple of decades, however, farmers here have increasingly switched to monoculture, uprooting their apricot orchards and tobacco fields in favour of cereals: feed crops that need big fuel-guzzling machines and a lot of irrigation. It’s a strategy of people who aren’t ready to admit that the Mediterranean is creeping north, and that droughts (punctuated by ever more violent floods and hailstorms in July) are the northern Drôme’s future.

Robin is taking a cannier, more measured approach. Two-thirds of his land is grain, but he plants varieties that need less water, and he’s moved from government-certified organic to ‘regenerative agriculture’, keeping the soil covered in green manure (paid for by the local shoot) and feeding his crops ‘compost teas’ that help them root deeper into the ground in search of the vanishing moisture and nutrients. When he inherited the farm from his father in 2016, the land was ‘overworked, impoverished’. Now it’s coming back to life, but the extremes of climate change may prove too much for it.

‘When I was a child,’ he told me, ‘there was snow every winter, and grey humid days in the autumn when we harvested the tobacco. In recent years, we’ve lost the frosts that kept the soil moist; rain only seems to come with a storm attached, and the ground’s too parched to absorb it.’ As Adrien Guionnet from the river commission points out, the Herbasse used to flood twice a century. Now it’s every five years.

I met Yves and Anne Gélus at a protest they’d organised against a new motorway slip road that’s slated to run through a bucolic stretch of northern Drôme including their family farm. Once they win the motorway fight, Anne said, ‘water is next. The aquifer spreads over a 8500 km2 area. It’s always had its highs and lows, but this time it’s not getting replenished, and the level’s going down. My father-in-law says: “How can that be? The aquifer’s inexhaustible.”’

‘But farmers here plant potatoes and irrigate round the clock,’ Yves said, ‘and any water restrictions just mean they pump twice as much the rest of the time.’

His father, who was also the village mayor, farmed his thirty hectares according to postwar ideas of progress: ‘The day he got his first tractor, he went out and cut down a tree that was in the way.’ When Yves and Anne took over the farm, they realised ‘it was time to stop massacring nature.’

In the last few years, the Géluses, like Guillaume Robin, have gone beyond ‘organic’ into what they describe as ‘agro-ecology’: they grow grapes, cherries and apricots that are picked ripe and delivered straight to their customers; they’ve reintroduced the old irrigation channels that are now teeming with fish; they have hens and a neighbour’s sheep grazing under their fruit trees; they’ve replanted hedgerows to protect against the mistral and to bring back birds which eat the flies that were attacking their cherries.

Climate change adds another level of complexity. ‘It’s like playing with a yoyo when the string keeps getting longer,’ Anne said. What’s required, Yves said, is ‘constant experimentation and selection, which was our ancestors’ forte. We’re planting more Mediterranean species: almonds, pomegranates, pistachios. Clementines are next. A climatologist tells me: where Avignon was twenty years ago, that’s where you are today. Further south is becoming a desert, the north is getting rainier. We’re at the frontier. Which way will it go?’

In 2023, a geomorphic model of the northern Drôme’s aquifer will finally be completed. Those allowed access (it won’t be made public, I’m told) will get some sense of how much water’s left, and what changes are needed to stop it drying up completely.

Baptiste Morizot, who teaches philosophy at Aix-Marseilles University, argues for non-hierarchical relations among all living things; he’s among those who have helped found a five-hundred-hectare wildlife reserve in the Vercors mountains. At the other end of the spectrum are the industrials turning orchards and woodlands into factories and shopping malls, backed by local politicians who say development brings jobs. (Never mind that it’s the same workers being relocated from the sites they’re closing.) Farmers teeter somewhere in between, uncertain which way their interests lies.

Yves and Anne Gélus’s eldest daughter, who’s expressed an interest in eventually taking over the family farm, recently came back from a year on a kibbutz in the Negev. Maybe twelve months in the desert is just the preparation needed to farm in a climate that not so long ago was closer to Sussex’s.

This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.