The vast valley around the Po is called the Po Basin or Po Valley (Italian Pianura Padana or Val Padana); in time it became the main industrial area of the country. In 2002, more than 16 million people lived there, at the time nearly ⅓ of the population of Italy.
The two main economic uses of the valley are for industry and for agriculture, both major uses. The industrial centres, such as Turin and Milan, are located on higher terrain, away from the river. They rely for power on the numerous hydroelectric stations in or on the flanks of the Alps, and on the coal/oil power stations which use the water of the Po basin as coolant. Drainage from the north is mediated through several large, scenic lakes. The streams are now controlled by so many dams as to slow the river's sedimentation rate, causing geologic problems. The expansive, moist and fertile flood plain is reserved mainly for agriculture and is subject to flash floods, even though the overall quantity of water is lower than in the past and lower than demand. The main products of the farms around the river are cereals including – unusually for Europe – rice, which requires heavy irrigation. The latter method is the chief consumer of surface water, while industrial and human consumption use underground water.
The Po along the city of Turin
Horse riding along the Po Delta.
The Po Delta wetlands have been protected by the institution of two regional parks in the regions in which it is situated: Veneto and Emilia-Romagna. The Po Delta Regional Park in Emilia-Romagna, the largest, consists of four parcels of land on the right bank of the Po and to the south. Created by law in 1988, it is managed by a consortium, the Consorzio per la gestione de Parco, to which Ferrara and Ravenna provinces belong as well as nine comuni: Comacchio, Argenta, Ostellato, Goro, Mesola, Codigoro, Ravenna, Alfonsine, and Cervia. Executive authority resides in an assembly of the presidents of the provinces, the mayors of the comuni and the board of directors. They employ a Technical-Scientific Committee and a Park Council to carry out directives. In 1999 the park was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and was added to "Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta." The 53,653 ha (132,580 acres) of the park contain wetlands, forest, dunes and salt pans. It has a high biodiversity, with 1000–1100 plant species and 374 vertebrate species, of which 300 are birds.
The active delta
The most recent part of the delta, which projects into the Adriatic between Chioggia and Comacchio, contains channels that actually connect to the Adriatic and on that account is called the active delta by the park authorities, as opposed to the fossil delta, which contains channels that no longer connect the Po to the Adriatic (but once did). The active delta was created in 1604 when the city of Venice diverted the main stream, the Po grande or Po di Venezia, from its channel north of Porto Viro to the south of Porto Viro in a channel then called the Taglio di Porto Viro, "Porto Viro cut-off". Their intent was to stop the gradual migration of the Po toward the lagoon of Venice, which would have filled up with sediment had contact been made. The subsequent town of Taglio di Po grew around the diversionary works. The lock of Volta Grimana blocked the old channel, now the Po di Levante, which flows to the Adriatic through Porto Levante.
Below Taglio di Po the Parco Regionale Veneto, one of the tracts under the authority of the Parco Delta del Po, contains the latest branches of the Po. The Po di Gnocca branches to the south followed by the Po di Maestra to the north at Porto Tolle. At Tolle downstream the Po di Venezia divides into the Po delle Tolle to the south and the Po della Pila to the north. The former exits at Bonelli. The latter divides again at Pila into the Busa di Tramontana to the north and the Busa di Scirocco to the south, while the mainstream, the Busa Dritta, enters Punta Maistra and exits finally past Pila lighthouse.
Despite the park administration's definition of the active delta as beginning at Porto Viro, there is another active channel upstream from it at Santa Maria in Punta, where the Fiume Po divides into the Po di Goro and the Po di Venezia.
The fossil delta
The fossil Po is the region of no longer active channels from the Po to the sea. It begins upstream from Ferrara. The Fiume Po currently flowing to the north of Ferrara is actually the result of a diversion at Ficarolo in 1152 made in the hope of relieving flooding in the vicinity of Ravenna. The diversion channel was at first called the Po di Ficarolo. The Fiume Po before then followed the Po di Volano, no longer connected to the Po, which ran to the south of Ferrara and exited near Volano. In Roman times it did not exit there but ran to the south as the Padus Vetus ("old Po") exiting near Comacchio, from which split the Po di Primaro exiting close to Ravenna.
Before 1152 the seaward extension of today's delta, about 12 km (7.5 mi), did not exist. The entire region from Ravenna to Chioggia was dense swamps, explaining why the Via Aemilia was constructed between Rimini and Piacenza and did not begin further north.