Free-Form Sprawl Threatens Spain’s Water

Associated Press Writer

Along much of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, the bleak land looks like fringes of the Sahara. Yet in scattered spots, where someone has left the water on, the desert blooms.

For decades, developers have poured on the water full blast. Now a fresh boom is bringing golf courses by the hundreds, landscaped tracts of retirement homes and beachfront hotels that scrape the sky.

Scientists warn that the magic ingredient -- pumped water -- is fast dropping toward brackish dregs at the bottom of ancient aquifers. But, officials say, there is money to be made.


Like St. Tropez in France or so many other places on Europe’s Mediterranean shore, Murcia is a test case for what happens when too many people fight for too little water.

Much of the old charm remains in this proud province between Andalusia and Valencia. But a free-form sprawl of cheap housing projects and green grass fairways is fast gaining ground.

Spain plans to solve the water problem with a $5-billion channel running south from the 565-mile Ebro River. Ecologists say that will only turn a crisis into a calamity and still solve nothing.

Pascual Fernandez, secretary of state for water affairs, said water drawn from the mouth of the Ebro would have no impact upstream and would not overdevelop the south.

“Ebro water will only cover the existing deficit,” he said in a Madrid interview. “The law says it cannot be used for new development or for golf courses.”

Across town, Theo Oberhuber of Ecologists in Action snorted at that idea.

“The Spanish government is in the habit of lying,” she said. “They deny anything if it serves their purpose.”

She accused government planners of ignoring long-term effects while plundering wetlands, rangelands and fragile desert areas for the benefit of developers and large-scale subsidized farmers.

In Murcia, Jorge Gomez Garcia, a government-employed water specialist who is studying desertification for the European Union, dismisses official promises to control water use as impractical and misleading.

“There are already 10,000 illegal wells in Murcia alone,” he said. “Spain has very good water laws and plans. The question is whether they are enforced.”

If golf courses or new developments do not use Ebro water, he said, they will simply tap depleting aquifers and increase the overall deficit.

Opposition is fierce in Aragon and Navarra provinces. The Ebro is theirs, people insist, and diverting water will slow growth, alter the ecology and salt up the river’s Mediterranean delta.

Farmers and urban planners in Valencia, Murcia and Andalusia are just as adamant. Demonstrations running into the hundreds of thousands have marched for and against.

Julia Martinez, a University of Murcia researcher and activist, insists that the only answer is better use of local water, while setting realistic limits.

Because new communities around golf courses need services, “each new drop of water in our system creates a demand for two more,” she said.

Water use provokes bitter controversy around Murcia.

Last year, a state prosecutor collected evidence of illegal irrigation that she said local officials had condoned and headed for Madrid to see national authorities. Her Mercedes-Benz mysteriously ran off the freeway -- police said the brakes failed -- and she was killed. The accident is still under investigation. Police said files believed to be in her trunk were not found.

One big problem, ecologists contend, is that wealthy local businessmen and politicians develop land with European Union help, either from agricultural subsidies or other incentives.

Companies buy tracts of land that they equip with golf courses and then subdivide into holiday homes for Britons and other Europeans. Almost every new house has its own pool.

Meantime, farmers say that unless they are assured of reliable irrigation, especially as drought and temperatures increase, their families will suffer.

“We’d be happy for another solution than the Ebro,” said Francisco Gil, head of a large farmers’ union. “Just find us something else. The alternative is that we go out of business.”

A straight green ribbon through Murcia marks the route of an irrigation canal built by North African Arabs who occupied southern Spain until 1492. It is aligned toward Mecca.

“Those guys really understood the water,” said Gonzalo Gonzales Barbera, an ecologist who works with the University of Murcia and state agencies. “They had a sophisticated irrigation system that produced lush crops. Where there was no water, they left the land as it was.”

But in every direction, broad patches of green show where someone has drilled new wells or diverted some of the Segura River, which dwindles to a meager stream toward its end.

These days, with all the population pressure and worldwide fight over excess cotton, subsidized farmers pump more water to grow cotton in the dry lands near Cartagena south of here.

Farmers say their drip irrigation and large plastic greenhouses maximize water use. Ecologists say these merely slow the waste and create other problems.

On a drive around Murcia, Gonzales pointed to trees killed by polluted aquifers, bays overwhelmed with jellyfish because of dumped waste, fragile landscape ripped away for new homes or shopping malls, forested mountainsides gashed by bulldozers.

At one site offered by a large developer, Polaris World, the stench from sewage in a nearby stream overwhelms the scent of freshly planted flowers.

“We are still only talking about temporary, stopgap measures,” Gonzales said. “At some point, we have to stop and think rationally about the future. We won’t make it like this.”

Developers, backed by government authorities, take a different approach. They say the tourists and foreign residents who make the region flourish will not come if they don’t have water.

The obvious problem is finding the right balance.

Spain used to be a net exporter of migrants. Since it joined the 15-nation EU, more people settle in Spain than leave it.

One of them is Phil Cochrane, who sold his publishing company in Manchester, England, and paid $250,000 for his patch of paradise -- a small home with pool and garden in a new subdivision.

“We love it here,” he said.

The name on Cochrane’s gate, “Llamudos,” says it all. Backward, it’s a mild British curse: “Sod ‘em all.”