Dino reminds me of Santa Claus if the wise present-giver was still a child. He is the walking definition of piercing blue eyes, which can be almost intimidating until he starts joking around with a loud hoarse laugh. He has also been revealing to have a very caring nature, in a serene type of way, and his life has taken him to inhabit almost every continent. And, of course, he has a meritorious beard.

His youngling excitement came up especially as he took me on a tour of the water turbine which will generate electric energy in the restaurant. (Which, by the way, is opening in the next few months! Start getting your taste receptors and all other senses ready). It was a very wet day, but Dino just put on a beanie and got out the door with zero bothers. I followed with a camera and 3043 objects for rain protection.

As the person in charge of procurement and supply, as well as financial planning and project scheduling, Dino has been shoulder-deep in the development of the construction, and he is particularly enthusiastic about the innovative and self-sustainable energy production. On that very rainy afternoon, Dino was taking me to get closely acquainted with the ribeira (the small river) and the restaurant turbine.

“The beauty of the hydropower is of course that it’s running 24h a day, which is very different from solar.… So especially for these kitchen equipments like fridges, which need power continuously, they are ideal to be powered by the hydroturbine. It won’t be sufficient to supply all the equipment with electricity in the restaurant, but it’s enough for these ones that are constantly on.”

“It’s quite muddy”. Yes, all is water – mud and puddles and river. Good wellies weather. So this is the lameira, I say, now I see where the name comes from. Lama means mud. Dino laughs, knowingly. “We’re very close to the river” he acknowledges. We are exactly at the water level.

“To tell the story of the turbine, we actually have to go back in time. This building was a lagar – an olive oil mill.The function that it had before, we want to showcase that… We’re still using the water power – the water gives the energy, which used to be the same for the mill with the olives – and at the same time we can show the new innovation of the water turbine.… We’re bringing in new technology…. They used big milling stones, gigantic blocks of rock to crush the olives and extract the oil. We will display them in an installation in the restaurant garden.”

In the old days, the water dropped down from the channel onto paddles attached to a rotating system, directly moving those giant stones. But “what we have here now is called a vortex turbine. It’s something different. So the water is not just *boom* falling down and then turning a wheel, this water is swirling now. And that’s really important because there is more energy with the water *swirling* down in the vortex. Cause this is not a big river!”

“We had to calculate the flow rate…very interesting… we really had fun.” Dino laughs and the child Santa comes out. I wonder how do you calculate the flow rate of a river?

“The amount of water that flows here is an average of 700 to 900 litres per second, with a 1.5m drop.” We are now standing by the ribeira. There is a big pool of calm water collecting in the mill pond before an açude – a small dam – over which there is a tiny but strong waterfall – that is the drop. After it, the river flows fast on a leaner riverbank. All across its path, the river is sided by thin, tall alder trees, some with their feet dipped in the water, some on land close by. “It’s really beautiful”, Maria do Céu had told me the day before at the Seminário, when we were looking down on the flowing river. Céu is our connection to this land, and the one we go to when we are missing something, or even when we aren’t missing anything. You will get to know her. “In the summer the alder trees by the river are very green and you can see exactly where the river is flowing, from a distance!” On the pool of the açude, a very small, brown, round bird is excitedly jumping and flying around close to Dino and I, and he is not camera-shy at all.

“Normally, with a conventional turbine system, this would not be not enough water to generate power. But with a vortex… the water is falling and swirling.” Centrifuging! “Yes! A vortex is like what you see in your bathtub.”Dino swirls a finger down, like a mini tornado.

“So, the centrifugal force, added to the down, makes it possible to generate electricity.” That’s so cool! “Yes, it’s a real innovation! And there was only one company that we found who actually have really *proven* results with other projects in the world – Africa, Latin America, Asia… for example the Green School, in the jungle in Bali.” This company’s name is Turbulent (“very appropriate”), it is based in Belgium, and they work to provide eco-friendly hydropower around the world and for anyone. Turbulent and the Vale das Lobas team went back and forth with the designs and materials until they found a solution which was sustainable but also economical. For Dino, working with energy production is a first, and you can see that he’s really enthusiastic about learning on the job.

We climb on top of the wall that separates us from the running water, so we are standing over a water channel that was already there when the old lagar was working, taking running water into the building to drive the olive mill. The mill pond’s açude has been carefully constructed to allow for a stretch of water, 50cm deep, to flow through the inlet channel.

“The açude was built last summer, when the water level was very low. The mill pond is 4 meters deep.”

Looking at it from your biologist point of you… this is a pond, which will now keep water over the summer…. we’re creating new habitats… We’re not just doing engineering for the turbine… but also for the ecosystem.” 

The sassy brown birdie was jumping around close to us, as if in agreement. “This river has turtles! My son, Alan, found a big one”. Dino has two very cool young boys that are already adopted by the valley. There will also be a nature trail by the river, and even though it’s cold, I keep thinking about jumping into this pool on a warm summer day.

Later, I ask Tony, the director of the project (have I told you about him already? No? We’ll get back to that), whether this açude is a sealed dam, and whether the design also includes the needs of fish and other river animals. “This is work in progress.”, he explains to me, “Natural water systems are best created over time, so with each intervention we observe carefully, and then we can plan the next step. In the dry months, we’re able to rearrange. This winter, we’re confirming that the levels are correct to drive the vortex. Next summer, we will design a channel for the fish and river fauna.” I’ve learned that this installation is in the heart of the Biodiversity Park of Vale das Lobas, which will be a haven for nature to thrive, and of which you will keep hearing about in these articles and in our updates (hopefully on visits as well!).

“On the other side” back to our river visit, Dino points to the other riverbank, higher up the hill “will be the Artisan Village, which will need a lot of water management as well.” That is where homes for longer stays, including permanent living, will be built, in a completely sustainable way. I nodded, eyeing the endless ponds created by the heavy rain. By then I had clumsily abandoned my rain protections and just adopted the moist-hair look.

Dino then tells me that during the last dry months, besides reinstating the açude, the riverbanks has also been carefully reinforced in places. The ancient stone walls were recovered, and the riverbed cleaned of accumulated debris,which were blocking the flow and stagnating some parts of the river. Seeing the river for the first time now, it looks as though it has run wild like this for years, with a healthy flow, clear waters and beautifully lush banks. I wouldn’t suspect human intervention as recent as some months ago.

That same night and continuing over the next days, there was really heavy, stormy rain weather, which pumped up the river, increased its flow and raised its level immensely! It was cascading over the açude wall, almost climbing over the portada (a small door) that is blocking the channel before the turbine is safely operational. There was so much water that it was actually filling up the channel coming out of the turbine chamber, like it was flowing backwards, and into the restaurant! Even though it was an urgency, it was quite beautiful to see the restaurant building team, and not only, step up quick and serenely to work around this challenge. A new, improvised channel was built to control the flow of water and protect the building site, and the outwards channel was redirected to stop the turbine from getting flooded. Such is the way with nature – unpredictable, fast, grand – and at Vale das Lobas we get to work with it daily. We put on our waterproof boots and jackets when needed and enjoy every bit of those moments of mud and rain.

So how do you calculate the flow rate after all?? (You thought I had forgotten?)

One must imagine that “the river is like a big tube of water”, and you choose a 7-meter stretch of it. You do several measurements of both width and depth to calculate an average width and depth of the river. With these, you have average of volume! From there, at the start of the 7 meters, “you take a plastic bottle half full of water”, drop it in the river, and time it to see how long it takes for the bottle to flow to the end of the 7 meters! “So Marco and I went in with our boots… and it was really fun and scientific”. Here is child Santa Dino. And yes, science can be fun sometimes!