Spain Warned Over Irrigation Near Prized Wetlands

Scientists and ecologists say the Doñana wetlands are in danger of drying up.

A water meter in a dry wetland in Donana natural park, Spain, Oct. 19, 2022.
A water meter in a dry wetland in Donana natural park, Spain, Oct. 19, 2022.
AP Photo/Bernat Armangue, File

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The European Union has warned Spain that it won't tolerate renewed plans by regional politicians in the country's south to expand irrigation near the prized Doñana wetlands, which scientists and ecologists say are in danger of drying up.

In a letter seen by The Associated Press on Tuesday, Florika Fink-Hooijer, the head of the EU's Directorate General for the Environment, told Spain's government that it is "necessary to immediately ensure the strict protection of Doñana's exceptional natural treasures, especially taking into account that rainfall is increasingly scarce due to climate change."

The Doñana wetlands are a UNESCO world heritage site and considered one of Europe's key biospheres. Sitting on an estuary where the Guadalquivir River meets the Atlantic Ocean, their 74,000 hectares (182,000 acres) are a wintering site for a half-million waterfowl and a stopover spot for millions of other birds that migrate from Africa to northern Europe.

But the park's lagoons and marshes are shrinking under pressure from local farmers, some of whom use illegal wells to tap its underlying aquifer. The situation has worsened because of a drought during a record-hot 2022 for Spain.

The conservative Popular Party that governs southern Andalusia, however, is again pushing forward a proposed law that would rezone more farmland near the park as irrigable. This comes a year after the party had shelved a similar initiative. Now they have it back on the agenda before municipal elections across Spain on May 28.

The European Court of Justice condemned Spain for neglecting the wetlands in 2021. That was followed by a first letter from Fink-Hooijer urging Spain to take action. The central government responded with a plan to speed up the closing of illegal wells near the park, a plan to reroute surface water from a nearby river basin, and by pledging 350 million euros ($377 million) to protect the reserve.

Fink-Hooijer warned in her second letter sent on Monday that Spain could face a fine this time if authorities continue to fail in their duty to safeguard Doñana.

Regional authorities for Andalusia who want to expand the irrigable lands say that the water for the 650 farmer they estimate would benefit from the plan would come from surface water, instead of wells.

However, other local farmers who legally use wells in the area have argued that any new water being piped into the area should go to them so that they can stop using wells, and thus help restore the aquifer.

The WWF said in a statement issued Tuesday that the water authorities "do not foresee any increase of available water" in the area.

"It is urgent and necessary to adopt measures to reduce the consumption of water and revert the poor status of the aquifer," the environmental group said.

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