The Venosta valley and the entire Merano area get very little rainfall, an average of only 500 mm. per year, in fact, and the strong sunshine quickly dries the countryside, especially that of Monte Sole. This is why local farmers have built so many water-irrigation channels over the years as the only option of taking the essential water to their fields, meadows and fruit orchards.
By the year 1900, there were already something like 1,000 Waale irrigation channels in South Tyrol making a total length of over 1,000 km.
The word “Waal” comes from the Celtic word “bual”, which relates to the Roman word “aquale”. Many dialect words and expressions are connected to the “Waale” such as “Rod” referring to the hours during which irrigation water was available, “Kandel” from “canal”, “Tschött” or water-wheel, “Schweller” – a device for controlling the flow of the water and many others.
The Waalweg paths along the slopes in the Merano area and in the Venosta valley are, without doubt, the most popular walks in the whole region. Years ago, these flat, narrow paths were only used by the “Waaler”, the men employed to guard, patrol and maintain the water channels. The Waaler cleaned the channels and ensured that water reached the different fields for the right amount of time. They opened and closed the wooden sluice gate shutters to control the flow of the water as necessary and looked after the small water-wheels. These wheels each have a hammer which clink as the water passes so that the Waaler know that everything is all right as long as he hears the hammer striking as it should. The irrigation water flows through a main channel into side channels which lead off in different directions and a farmer’s fields are watered at certain times according to previous agreement. A meadow on Monte Sole would be virtually worthless if irrigation was not available. Water from the main Waale channels and side channels ends up in the river or in one of the numerous valleys streams.
Anyone accused of stealing water or of blocking the channels was severely punished in olden days. The supply of water available to different farmers was often the cause of arguments and fights between one village and the next and there was, in fact, a terrible argument between the farmers in the villages of Parcines and Rablà in 1431. An acceptable solution was not found until 1584 but trouble broke out again between 1656 and1657 and took ages to settle satisfactorily.
Some of the Waalweg paths a lined with mills, saw-works and abandoned wooden tubs in which butter was once churned.