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At the beginning of the 1900s the important technical advances that made electricity easily transportable favor a rapid development of production and consumption. Until the end of the 1960s, 90% of the energy consumed in Italy was produced by hydroelectric power plants. Today the share has fallen to less than 15%. Our valleys, rich in water and steep slopes, represent a particularly favorable environment for the production of "white coal", the sap of the second industrial revolution. In 1906, Ettore Conti, a Milanese engineer with the Edison company, carried out an inspection in Ossola ... trying not to look into it; a few months later he set up the Società Elettriche Conti which will purchase the concession to exploit the waters of the Toce river and its tributaries from the state.

In the space of just over 20 years, the new company will build the first major power plants based on the project by architect Piero Portaluppi, son-in-law of Conti: Verampio, Crego, Valdo, Sottofrua, Crevoladossola, Cadarese. The Ossola of those years became a construction site: bold roads were built; perforated mountains; barred valleys with cyclopean walls of earth, stone, cement: all this irremediably changed the alpine landscape and with it the way of life of many mountain people. Pastures, submerged villages and mountain pastures were destroyed; the most emblematic case was certainly that of Agaro, an ancient Walser settlement, the smallest and the highest (1561 meters above sea level), a municipality in the province of Novara. The life of the small community had for seven centuries been marked by the succession of the seasons and by the hard work of tenacious and courageous men and women; the only wealth was the production of butter and cheese. The roads were only paths cut into the rock: three hours of walking to reach Baceno to get married, baptize their children, bury the dead, buy salt and pay taxes: not even donkeys and mules could help.

In 1926 the Conti Company was absorbed by the largest private company Edison which decided to build a 20 million cubic meter reservoir in that remote valley. The destiny of this small community of 100 inhabitants was marked: in 1938, despite protests and postponements, after three years of intense work the poor houses of Agaro disappeared submerged forever.

The Veglia and Devero valleys also risked ending up the same way; "fortunately", however, the land was not sufficiently impermeable.

In those years the architectural genius of Portaluppi built the factories of white coal, using materials and construction techniques in harmony with the local environmental context. The Ossola power plants of that period are architecturally much appreciated for the characteristic monumental structures that recall eastern castles and temples. The Ossola valleys have sacrificed a lot on the altar of hydroelectric development; however, white coal has favored the economic, cultural and entrepreneurial development of this extreme strip of Italy.


Starting from the early twentieth century, the natural environment of the Ossola valleys underwent significant transformations due to the policy of exploiting hydroelectric energy, a policy already implemented by the Giolitti government and continued more massively, in the first post-war period, during the fascist regime, when there was even talk of interests for the "supreme good of the nation".

From the vast glaciers, thanks to the considerable height difference of the walls of the valleys, huge quantities of water were conveyed in specially made reservoirs: a united Italy could not remain in its state of economic backwardness and hydroelectric energy was necessary for the great industry of the north of the country. That then the local populations and the beauty of the landscape were the first to lose, very few people cared!

Today Ossola appears to be dotted with more or less impressive dams in all its valleys. Within the Veglia - Devero Park the main dams are those of the lakes of Agaro, Codelago and D'Avino, in addition to the more recent Gebbo dam, on the course of the Cairasca stream, visible from the junction that allows to reach Trasquera along the road from Varzo to San Domenico. The main hydroelectric plants are instead located in Iselle, Varzo, Devero and Goglio.

The Codelago dam, now easily accessible to Alpe Devero, was built starting in 1910. Before, there was already a natural reservoir, but with the construction of the artificial barrier the water level was raised by a good 14 meters. Wooden scaffolding and modest equipment for transport and installation were used for the construction of the work. The cement was transported on the shoulder of a man or with pack animals. The reservoir capacity is 17 million cubic meters and the plant is used to feed the central Goglio below during the driest periods.

The name of Codelago derives from the dialectal expression Lac d’co ’d’ lag, meaning Lake at the head of the lake. This expression was derived from the name used to indicate a small group of casere placed on the northern shore. Instead the term Quadlach disappeared, with which the lake was once indicated.

Before the advent of the dams, the Codelago was the third natural Ossola basin, preceded only by the Kastel (Val Formazza) and the lake of Antrona (Valle Antrona).

At 2234m above sea level, above the basin of the Alpe Veglia, at the foot of the eastern slope of Monte Leone, there was a small stretch of water, Lake D'Avino. During the Giolittian age, the continuous need for energy led to the construction of a dam, with the consequent formation of a hydroelectric basin, about 30m deep and with an area of almost 4 sq. Km. To the southeast of the stretch of water lies the D'Avino plain, a desolate and desert plateau scattered here and there with small puddles of water: naturally such a landscape could only ignite strange fantasies in the collective imagination of the inhabitants of the Valley.

The dam was built from 1911 to 1913 and raised further in 1918, to create a basin with a capacity of 6.5 million cubic meters of water, with which to feed the Varzo hydroelectric plant. Over 33,000 cubic meters of rock were split, processed and stacked manually for the construction of the dam.

The name of the lake has a curious history: the first ascertained toponym is Lago D'Arvina ("lake of the ruin"), with reference to the stony ground that from the Monte Leone descends to the lake itself, therefore the name varied in spelling in Lago Divino, for then move to Lake of Wine before reaching the current form.

A sad story: the Agaro dam

As already mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the case of Agaro is the most emblematic of the upheavals caused to the natural environment by the hydroelectric exploitation policies in the area.

When he was forcibly abandoned, he had 104 inhabitants, had a mayor, a parish priest, a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and a school with an elementary school teacher: in the thirties, however, he was literally sacrificed to the need for energy of an Italy now devoted to autarchy. Actually Agaro, Premia and Salecchio had already been aggregated to the territory of Baceno during the Napoleonic age, to return immediately to autonomous municipalities after the fall of the French tyrant. However, starting in 1927, the fascist government undertook a policy of consolidation among the smaller municipalities, which in this case resulted in the union of Agaro and Salecchio with Premia (Royal Decree of 6 September 1928). In particular, the reason for the amalgamation between Agaro, the municipality of Val Devero, and Premia is unclear.

Work on the artificial reservoir began in 1936, ending in 1938. The dam entered full capacity two years later. Meanwhile the inhabitants of the tiny town had to leave and see their country submerged by the waters, after having been the site of one of the proudest Walser colonies for seven centuries. Today of that small community there remains only the tip of the bell tower that emerges from the lake waters in spring, when the level of the reservoir is lowered. The dam looks like a mighty 57 m high wall, thus creating an artificial barrier of 20 million cubic meters.

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