Bullhead in the river. A ‘green’ hydropower plant project endangers indigenous fish near Rila National Park

Diagram 125/17 in blue painted on a barrier within the stream before the MHPP

A ‘green’ hydropower plant project endangers indigenous fish near Rila National Park
By Hristina Nedialkova

A fish species is in the midst of a split in public opinon over European green policies in Bulgaria’s mountain of Rila. In the local municipality of Samokov  locals call it the Choch, but its proper name in Bulgarian is Glavoch, which sounds roughly like ‘bullhead.’ The little endangered fish’s existence seems to be threatened by a micro hydro power plant (MHPP) to be constructed in the area. While both green energy and biodiversity protection are part of a vision of greener European future of the Bulgarian economy, shared by most environmental activists, no ready answers exist as to which of them is more important.

Cottus gobio is common in Europe, but very rare in Bulgaria. The magnified image of an actually four-inch-long fish lurks daringly on the white screen behind a group of environmentalists from prozrachiniplanini.org (Transparent Mountains) as they present in front of a group of journalists, brought in to Samokov by BlueLink.net. The event takes place in the vicinity of Mala Carkva, a village near the sparkling little river of Levi Iskar – an inflow of the Danube’s longest Bulgarian tributary Iskar which provides most of the drinking water for the country’s capital Sofia. A micro water power plant is about to be built here, and the environmentalists believe that this poses a threat to the survival of Bullhead and to water quality altogether.

The MWPP investment project is built in the vicinity of, but outside the Rila National park, some 8 miles away from Samokov – the town once known for its water powered big hammers and its hundred wells.  Dimitar Lobutov, the investor and proprietor of the project known as Rossa (dewdrops), oversees personally the construction in mud-covered rubber boots just like any of his workers. He is willingly citing figures: a EUR 1,5 million strong investment project; with one third own contribution; a big deal of administrative load and “bargaining” with the Municipality about fees;  and “one last document missing.” The headstrong looking energetic 63 years old  presents himself as a keen mountaineer. But one who prefers to “develop this country’s economy rather than let money rotten in the bank.” 

Lobutov aspires to live up to EU’s green investment support policy vision. In his words the business plan is to operate the plant only during the four months of high-water, and to secure a reverse flow corridor for fish. But Petko Tzetkov of the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation rejects these promises as inadequate and refers to projects like Rossa as “the dark side of green energy.” While scientist argue if the fish is still in the river or not[…] the habitat is already being destroyed, Tzvetkov warns. Iskar with its inflows is one of the tree rivers that still habitable for Bullhead/ Choch in this country, as the specie require specific gravel bedded streams with cold and clear water, the ecologist warns.

Ivan Mishev of the Bulgarian trout protection associatoin contemplates on the fate of fish and especially the local trout is adding “all what will remain from the rivers will be their names, nothing more”. That type of energy is “not really green because the barrage will discontinue the role of the river as biological resource and they will be completely dried out at places, Mishev explained.

But Lobutov qualifies the complaints of locals and environmentalists as “envious:” He then bashes environmentalists as the “greatest racketeers in this country,” a wording popularly used by pro-investment pressure groups and politicians over the past years in Bulgaria.

Lobutov appears to be well known in Samokov. Some, like Stanko Belov (80), praise him: “if everybody on our planet were to be like Mr. Lobutov we wouldn’t have to deal with problems at all,” The opinion of the senior citizen who likes to see things done is firm: entrepreneurs and hard working people are rare and our society needs them. Others see his energy investment projects are generally a “shady business.” “Real wealth is nature” says an elderly woman selling tomatoes at the Samokov’s town market, who presents herself as a former construction engineer. “Bullhead? No such fish but there was plenty of Choch while I was in high school,” a man in his thirties sums up, near an imposing replica of  middle ages Ottoman well. The monument, rebuilt in 1965, is among the local attractions that remind that Somokov was historically rich in water. A local teenager, is curious about the little fish’s fate and whereabouts, but briskly leaves on his bike with his water bottle filled up as soon as the conversation moves to investment and politics.

There are no violations so far of the Water Law regarding the construction of Rosa hydropower plant, said Vesela Komarevska, expert at Danube River Basin Directorate (DRBD) - the institution responsible for sustainable water management. The permit issued by DRBD includes certain conditions, concerning  the abstraction and use of water bodies. Apart from that investors are required to receive a building permit, which is issued by another institution. The procedure for issuing a permit under the Water Law is preceded by an environmental impact assessment. Public consultations and opinions are taken into account before finalization of the environmental impact assessment procedure.

The group of environmentalists has objections regarding these procedures. In a site so close to a major protected area the investment intention must have a preliminary compatibility assessment. Environmental licenses should be the first documents to be issued and not the last ones, so that the negative impact of the project must be clearly indicated before the start of the construction works. There is also a dispute if this particular stream must be part of the adjacent  protected Natura2000. But the red line for the environmentalists is rationality and if it is sustainable to built hydro power plants.

Just like other investors alike, Lobutov complaints against administrative procedures and permits which they routinely refer to as red tape. Yet, it could safely be compared to the obstacles experienced by a little fresh water fish having to swim up a 960m long tube, provided for it as a detour of  its annual migration route by the Rossa plant inestor. If only the fish could speak.