She is not easily admired. Wild, Valserine hides its charms at the bottom of a steep valley, in the middle of the Jura mountains. A steep road, an arch of bright foliage, a murmur of running water, and suddenly she appears, dressed in emerald and hopping on the pebbles.
“Look at the mayflies hatching on the surface,” marvels my guide, Michel Barrel, president of the local fishing society. This is a sign that the water is of excellent quality. In degraded rivers, many invertebrates do not survive. »
Barely hatched, some of these insects are gobbled up, before our eyes, by wild trout. Those who survive are chased, a little further down, by the blue ballet of rock swallows. Indifferent, the Valserine continues on its way, winding between ash trees, hornbeams and hazel trees.
Along its route, no less than 157 protected species live, such as the water shrew, the yellow-bellied ringer, the Venus slipper and the musk orchis. And in its waters, the pebbles shelter insect larvae and small crustaceans, such as gammarus.
This jewel full of life, which winds between the Jura and the Ain before flowing into the Rhône, received the “Wild Rivers” label at the end of June, for the first time in France. An ambitious distinction, created at the initiative of the Fund for the Conservation of Wild Rivers and the European River Network (ERN-France), in close consultation with seven pilot watersheds.
It is awarded on the basis of a scientific grid evaluating their morphology, water quality, biodiversity, activities located nearby.
►Photo gallery. La Valserine in pictures.
Protection against eccentric projects
“The creation of a label is necessary in France where there is a lack of tools to protect the rare watercourses of very good quality, which have been little modified by man,” explains Mélanie Taquet, who piloted the labeling of Valserine with the general council of Ain and the departmental fishing federation.
Less than 7% of the Valserine route has been altered by works intended to channel its bed or produce energy. Very little industrialized and with extensive agriculture centered on the production of AOC cheeses, the valley has been able to protect the “natural capital” of its river. A capital that the award of the label should help to preserve.
“This recognition will first help protect the river against crazy projects that could threaten it. We will be stronger to face it…” hopes Michel Barrel, who has extensive experience in this area.
Small gray mustache, hiking shoes on his feet, this fisherman, madly in love with his river, fought for forty years against industrial pigsty projects, micro power plants or quarries… And he experienced, in 2009, a grueling fuel oil pollution, caused by a nearby holiday center.
Approved by the majority of elected officials in the valley, the “Wild Rivers” label nevertheless arouses suspicion here and there. Fishermen fear losing their peace of mind following the communication made around Valserine. Other residents of the valley fear that it will result in their territory being sealed off and harm economic development.
“We especially don’t want to turn into an Indian reserve,” assures Christian Bruneel, deputy director of the Haut-Jura Regional Natural Park, a structure which manages the Valserine watershed. On the contrary, this label will be another lever to develop tourism targeted at nature lovers with a capital N. The whole challenge is to welcome more people, but in a diffuse way and without creating poorly integrated facilities, who could kill the goose that lays the golden eggs…”
Because the label is not awarded “for life”. The Park shares with the inhabitants the responsibility of ensuring the wild character of Valserine, and even improving it. “Under certain bridges, large slabs hinder the movement of fish when the river level is low,” explains Christian Bruneel. These obstacles will have to be removed. »
A river witnessing a disappearing world
Another important project consists of anticipating the effects of climate change on the river. Indeed, the Rhône-Alpes region plans a reduction of at least 20% in the summer flow of most of its rivers by 2050. “If the Valserine has less water, it will be more vulnerable to pollution , explains Christian Bruneel. This reduction could be limited by avoiding planting spruce trees, which are large consumers of water, in nearby wetlands. This requires working with the owners of the land concerned.”
So many projects which should receive technical or financial support from partners invested in labeling, including the Rhône-Alpes-Mediterranean-Corsica region water agency. “Our role is first of all to repair rivers in poor condition,” explains Nathalie Saur, who manages aid and interventions in this Agency. But preserving the Valserine, like other wild rivers, is also very important. Because it is a reference, a standard which allows us to better understand what we are aiming for when we want to improve the quality of waterways.” Witness to a disappearing world, that of living and free rivers, little Valserine has not finished playing hide and seek with her indiscreet visitors.