At the Water's edge


Rhine and history

Of a total length of 1,230 km (764 miles), the Rhine rises in the Alps, on the sides of the Saint Gothard massif, East of Switzerland (the canton of Grisons.) After it has gone through the Lake Constance and then the Schaffhouse falls, it goes through Basel and it turns northwards in the middle of the upper plain of the Rhineland and then flows towards the North Sea. Then, it will have crossed or followed the frontiers of six countries: Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands.

The Rhine was already a key waterway for transporting and trading at the end of the 8th century and its role as a large international waterway for river traffic, with freedom of shipping to the sea, will be confirmed by the Vienna Treaty of 1815, the Mainz convention of 1831, the Mannheim convention of 1868 and finally by the Treaty of Versailles of 1919.

Until the middle of the 19th century however, the river remains unstable and irregular, spreading in the plain in a large number of branches. Floods happen frequently, many marshes ease the propagation of disease, navigation is regularly disrupted and the border demarcation between Alsace and Baden-Würtemberg keeps changing. Those issues are at the origin of huge works for the improvement of the river, according to the plans of Johann Gottfried Tulla, a colonel-engineer from Baden. Starting along the border between France and German in 1817, the works will go on until 1876. They aim to eliminate the twists and turns of the river in order to define a regular bed between two dikes. But by shortening the course of the Rhine by about 30 km (19 miles), the works disrupt the natural balance of the river: its bed deepens because of the acceleration of the water flow and the groundwater table collapses, which affects agriculture. Works of regulation to reduce those problems start downstream from Strasbourg between 1907 and 1924, then between Strasbourg and Basel between 1930 and 1963.

In parallel, the construction of a canal on the side of the Rhine ‘’for navigation and the production of electricity’’ is imagined by the engineer René Koechlin (from Alsace) and authorized in 1925. Back then, Koechlin planned to build 8 power stations between Basel and Strasbourg, fired by the dam of Kembs only. The building of the Grand Canal of Alsace and the construction works of Kembs start in 1928. Put into service in 1932, the power station, locks and dam will be seriously damaged during World War 2. Rebuilt in the aftermath of the war, the construction works are nationalised in 1946 and given to Electricité de France (EDF) (Electricity of France) which has just been created. The modern development of the Rhine has just begun.

Rhine and electricity

10 large power stations, 2 small hydropower plants and 1 nuclear power station line the Rhine between Basel and Lauterbourg, over almost 185 km (115 miles) on the frontier between France and Germany. The power stations run by EDF produce almost 20 billion kWh each year. 100% of the electricity produced does not cause any emission of greenhouse gases.

Rhine and dams

Although they are built to direct the water towards the plants for energy production purposes, dams also have other functions : they are fundamental to supply water to the natural river and to ensure the security of assets and people in case of a flood.

Between Kembs and Strasbourg, five dams permanently ensure that a minimum flow is thrown back into the Rhine : it is the minimum instream flow. It is ensured so as to preserve the river's natural flora and fauna.
Each dam has several passes equipped with adjustable outlets. Their management system includes security constraints that make it possible to evacuate important flow in case of a flood, even if one of the passes malfunctions. When the flood is out of the ordinary, flow toward the plants is progressively decreased and is transfered to the natural river beds. The flood peak can thus be capped through water redistribution in polders and islands of the Rhine, until the dikes that had been built in the XIXth century on the German side of the border.

In Brisach and Kehl, 2 agricultural dams provide a water supply that is useful to irrigate cultures and maintain the level of the Rhine's groundwater table. Their height of fall was used to build 2 small power plants.

Rhine, locks and navigation

A few figures:

  • 8 locks run by EDF
  • 49 officially certified EDF lock keepers
  • 20,000 boats passing the locks each month in Strasbourg
  • 60,000 m3 of water contained in a big chamber
  • 20 min = average duration of a lock transit
  • 600 tonnes = weight of a lower gate in the locks of Kembs
  • 3 days for an express service between Rotterdam and Mulhouse

Beyond the production of energy, EDF’s mission is to ensure free navigation for barges and other crafts on the Rhine, 24 hours a day, during the whole year. The economic stake is huge since the river connects Rotterdam, which is the first European port, with Basel, which ranks among the first five ports, going through Strasbourg and Mulhouse-Ottmarsheim, respectively the 2nd and the 3rd French waterway ports after Paris. The ecological challenge is also important: only 4 barges are needed to transport 8,800 tonnes of goods and prevent 440 lorries from circulating.

EDF runs and ensures the maintenance of the 8 locks lining the river between Kembs and Strasbourg. In Gambsheim, the locks are under the responsibility of Voies Navigables de France, in Iffezheim it is under the control of the MSV (Wasser- und SchifffahrtsVerwaltung), namely the German navigation service. As far as security is concerned, the Service de la Navigation de Strasbourg and its counterpart the WSA Freiburg are responsible for the users of the river as well as the people living next to the river, in connection with the CARING (Centre d’Alerte Rhénan et d’Information Nautique de Gambsheim – Center of alert for the Rhineland and of nautical information of Gambsheim.) The waterway armed police of the Rhine ensure the enforcement of regulations and intervene to provide assistance to people.

Bilingual—German being the official navigation language on the Rhine—and certified, the lock keepers are EDF employees who followed a specific training. Their mission is to manage the lock transits while respecting the order of passage and security.

To guarantee the proper functioning of the facilities, the locks are periodically emptied to carry out an inspection, and repair, maintenance or modernization works. Those periods are established in cooperation with the navigation services and the people navigating, which makes it possible to minimize the inconveniences linked to the navigation on the river.


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