Wet gold. Accompanying guardian of the “bisses” Jean-Charles Bornet along the historical Bisse Vieux irrigation channel in Nendaz.

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Intro

As southern Valais gets little rain, spectacular irrigation channels have been constructed over the years to ensure that farmers can water their fields. One of them is Bisse Vieux near Nendaz, which dates back to 1658 and through which water still courses. Jean-Charles Bornet has been looking after Bisse Vieux for more than 35 years – which is why the apricots in Fey are so juicy.

Nendaz and Veysonnaz, Valais.

Nendaz-Veysonnaz is a paradise for those who love hiking along the bisses. It boasts eight of them, which together make up the biggest active bisse network in Switzerland.

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Overview
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The guardian of Bisse Vieux.

Nobody knows Bisse Vieux better than Jean Charles Bornet, who has been looking after Nendaz’s historical irrigation channel for more than 35 years. He has managed his bisse in a wide range of capacities ranging from secretary, president, treasurer to guardian.

Jean-Charles Bornet
Bisse Vieux channels precious water to farming land where there is no water.

Jean-Charles Bornet

Irrigation channels with a lot of history.

The very existence of Valais’s farming community depends on precious water being channelled in from the snow-laden Valais mountains to the fertile slopes above the Rhône Valley. This has been made possible by the construction of sophisticated irrigation channels called “Suonen” in German and “bisses” in French. The first written records attesting to the existence of Bisse Vieux date back to 1658, although the watercourse was built some time earlier. The seven-kilometre bisse used to consist mainly of wooden troughs. Today, it has been reinforced in some places by metal grids or stone channels to make sure that none of its precious water goes to waste.

The La Printse stream channels icy cold water from the Lac de Cleuson Reservoir into Bisse Vieux.

One stream serving many bisses.

Other bisses draw their water from the La Printse stream and run not only to Nendaz, but to Veysonnaz as well. Simple hikes along the bisses are tours of discovery between the two destinations.

Spring cleaning the bisses

Bisse Vieux runs from mid-May to the end of September. 20 people from the village get together to clean the bisse at the beginning of the season. Together, they remove stones and branches from the irrigation channel that have built up during the snowy winter and would otherwise block or even destroy it.

Sometimes, you have to resort to explosives.

Jean-Charles Bornet’s real work starts in earnest after the spring cleaning. “During the summer, I clean out the bisse every two to three days, mostly by hand or using the hoe. But when large objects are blocking the bisse, I have to resort to dynamite,” says Jean-Charles Bornet.

No bisse, no apricots.

Ensuring the fair distribution of water among landowners and farmers is also one of Jean-Charles Bornet’s tasks. The bisse features a sluice system in some places to regulate the flow of water. “In the past, dry summers with water shortages could lead to conflict between the farmers,” explains Jean-Charles Bornet. “This is because you cannot farm without irrigation. But today, we have it all well under control.”

Checked by experts: Jean-Charles Bornet is also President of the Agricultural  Commission of the municipality of Nendaz.
Around 350 people have the right to draw water from Bisse Vieux, which makes it vital to have clear distribution rules in place.
Jean-Charles Bornet

Bisse Vieux also channels water for the cultivation of the popular Valais apricot. Between the mountain village of Haute-Nendaz and the Rhône Valley lies the village of Fey, encircled by large-scale apricot plantations. Roughly 80 000 apricot trees are irrigated by the water from Bisse Vieux, meaning it plays a key role in ensuring that the apricots are so juicy.

When the farmers are happy, the hikers are happy.

A beautiful and popular trail takes hikers along Bisse Vieux. The bisse has long not only been vital for farming – it has also established itself as one of Nendaz’s tourist attractions.

“We keep Bisse Vieux in operation until mid-October. This is because a bisse that is channelling water is more attractive than one that is empty – even though farmers are no longer irrigating their fields by this time of the year. The water is purely there for people to look at,” laughs Jean-Charles Bornet. Hikers have him to thank for this.

The reward after a hard day’s work: enjoying the views of Veysonnaz and into Nendaz Valley.

Suggested hike along Bisse Vieux.

These gentle three and five-hour hikes thread their way along Bisse Vieux and Bisse du Milieu through lovely spruce and larch forests and over the meadows back to Nendaz.

All information on this route

  • 3.5 hours The time it takes to complete the circular hike. You can break down the hike. The stretch along Bisse Vieux takes about one-and-a-half hours.
  • 13km The length of the complete circular hike.
  • 360m Total ascent (ascents and descents).
  • 1 day One-day hike. We would recommend the five-day hike along the bisses from Martigny to Grimentz for those interested in hiking a number of days.