Where the water flows into the lake
The Rhine accounts for most of the inflow into Lake Constance. In the past the river always had a great impact on life in the valley as a result of flooding.
In the wake of three flood events that occurred in quick succession in the years 1888, 1890 and 1892, Habsburg Austria and Switzerland agreed to finally ratify a treaty on the regulation of the Rhine which at that point had been been under negotiation for 70 years. A process of construction began which ultimately turned the Alpine Rhine valley into what it is today: a densely populated, economically prosperous and culturally vibrant region, whose inhabitants can no longer really remember the dangers once posed by the "biggest torrent in Europe".
This brief historical introduction is essential if we are to properly appreciate the value of two special "sights" on the Vorarlberg shore of Lake Constance. One is the prolongation of the Rhine out into the lake, the other is the Rhine delta. The two are right next to each other, though they represent what are at first sight two diametrically opposed principles of human intervention in nature.
The prolongation of the Rhine is the final, unfinished component of the project to regulate the river's course. Begun in 1895, it's a project whose necessity and successfulness nobody seriously questions any more. The straightening, shortening and dyking of the river was not without adverse consequences, however. One of them was that the faster flowing water risked clogging up the estuary with sediment. To stop that process, the dykes have been progressively extended beyond the shoreline since 1972, so that the material borne by the river is deposited in ever deeper water. At the current time the S-shaped extension, clearly visible from the air, reaches out more than 3 kilometres into the lake. It is understandable when certain sensitive onlookers shake their heads over the monumental proportions the structure has taken on. Yet such is the amount of silt that the waters of the Rhine carry that it is plain to see, at the tips of the embankments, what an important purpose the structure fulfils.
The Rhine delta on the southern shore of Lake Constance is one of the most important nature protection areas in central Europe, and a picture-perfect landscape.
People who are little impressed by feats of engineering like this one – they in particular are encouraged to take a stroll along the left embankment, the one on the Fußach side. There you pass the Rhine delta nature protection area and can gaze out over 2,000 hectares of shallow water, reeds, wetlands and riparian forest, which have been declared a Natura 2000 protection area – a natural habitat of fauna and flora as designated under an EU directive. The area furthermore functions as a European breeding and resting ground for over 300 species of bird, contributing significantly to their survival.
The concepts of the Rhine extension and the Rhine delta could not be more contradictory. And yet they are both rooted in a sensible attitude towards nature, the objective being in one case the containment of nature, in the other its protection. The realisation that both aspects are and must be compatible has sunk in deeper in Vorarlberg than it has in other places. It can be seen in – among other things – the provincial government's desire for the federal state to reach energy autonomy by the year 2050. But that's another story.
Photos: Gerhard Klocker
First photo in the text: Achim Mende / Vorarlberg Tourismus