EU warns Spain about expanding irrigation near valuable wetlands

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The European Union has warned Spain it will not tolerate renewed plans by regional politicians in the south of the country 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, head of the EU’s Environment Directorate-General, told the Spanish government that there is “need to immediately ensure the rigorous protection of Doñana’s outstanding 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 the major biospheres in Europe. Sitting on an estuary where the Guadalquivir River meets the Atlantic Ocean, their 74,000 hectares (182,000 acres) are a wintering site for half a million waterfowl and a staging post for millions of other birds migrating from Africa north Europe.

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

The Conservative People’s Party that governs southern Andalusia, however, is once again moving forward with a bill that would reclassify more farmland near the park as irrigable. This comes a year after the party shelved a similar initiative. It is now back on the agenda ahead of Spain-wide municipal elections on May 28.

The European Court of Justice has condemned Spain for neglecting wetlands in 2021. This was followed by an initial letter from Fink-Hooijer urging Spain to act. The central government has responded with a plan to speed up the closure of illegal wells near the park, a plan to divert surface water from a nearby river basin, and committing 350 million euros ($377 million) to protect the reserve.

Fink-Hooijer warned in his second letter sent on Monday that Spain could be fined this time around if the authorities continue to fail in their duty to safeguard Doñana.

Regional authorities in Andalusia, which want to expand irrigable land, say the water for the 650 farmers they say would benefit from the plan would come from surface water, rather than wells.

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

WWF said in a statement released Tuesday that water authorities “do not anticipate any increase in available water” in the area.

“Measures are urgently needed to reduce water consumption and restore the poor state of the aquifer,” the environmental group said.


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