Levadas part 2In effect the island is a huge self-regulating reservoir. Rain seeps down into the porous volcanic ash but, on meeting impervious layers of rock, it wells up again in spring. Unless this rainwater is channelled, it just runs down ravines and into the sea.
In 1939 the Portuguese government sent a mission to the island to study a combined irrigation/hydroelectric scheme. The new ‘levadas’ created from its plans - wide mini-canals - contour through the valleys; their flow is stately and serene and their banks are lovingly planted with agapanthus lilies and hydrangeas. These wide waterways are first channelled out at an altitude of about 1000m/3300ft, where the concentration of rainfall, dew and springs is greatest. The water is then piped down to the power stations. Lying just at the outer edge of the arable land (about 600m/2000ft), from where it flows on to the irrigated zones. Here distribution is carried out by the ‘levadeiro’ (maintenance person), who diverts the flow to each proprietor.
Most of the mission's development plans were implemented by 1970. Among the most important projects were the ‘Levada do Norte’ and the ‘Levada dos Tornos’, both of which you will discover as you levada walk, tour or picnic. Their incredible length, considering the terrain, is best gauged on the foldout-touring map. The work took only 25 years to complete, although it was all done by hand. How were the tunnels cut through the solid basalt? How did the workers channel out the ‘levadas’ beneath the icy waterfalls, halfway between earth and sky? Often, as during the construction of the corniche road between São Vicente and Porto Moniz, they were suspended from above in wicker baskets, while they fought the unyielding stone with picks. Many lost their lives to bring water and electricity to the islanders and endless joy to walkers.