MADRID (AP) — Spain’s Prime Minister and the European Union’s environmental chief on Thursday slammed a plan by right-wing lawmakers to expand water rights for farmland around some of Europe's most important wetlands amid a prolonged drought.
The center-right Popular Party and far-right Vox movement first proposed rezoning land around Andalusia's Doñana national park in March, and regional lawmakers backed the plan last week. The bill’s critics say this would effectively offer an amnesty to farmers already using illegal wells to tap into the Doñana aquifer to grow strawberries, blueberries and raspberries for export across Europe.
EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius warned in a written missive Thursday that the bloc would use “all the means available” to ensure Spain complied with a 2021 European Court of Justice ruling that condemned it for breaching EU rules on excessive water extraction in Doñana.
The EU has sent repeated follow-ups to ensure compliance on environmental rules since then, and the approval of irrigation rights for 800 hectares of extra land around the UNESCO World Heritage site could incur a hefty fine.
Spain's center-left Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez later visited the conservation area, which is home to rare species including the Iberian lynx. Sánchez urged Andalusian politicians to “get back on track with European law” and “stop this outrage." He reminded local lawmakers that Spanish taxpayers would foot the bill for any EU-issued fines, as some view the Doñana plan as a way to win farmers' votes ahead of local elections on May 28.
His comments received a swift rebuke from Andalusia's regional leader Juanma Moreno, who said the central government had failed to invest in updating agricultural infrastructure to avoid water leaks. He urged Sánchez to offer “money, attention and respect" to resolve the situation.
Water levels in reservoirs fed by the Guadalquivir River Basin, where Doñana is situated, are currently at 25% of their total capacity due to back-to-back years of elevated temperatures and low rainfall. Farmers in the region have had their water allowance for irrigation cut by more than a third amid Andalusia's worst drought in almost three decades.
Spanish conservationists warned this month that half of the nature reserve's lakes have already disappeared, threatening the survival of freshwater turtles native to the Iberian peninsula, along with dragonflies and eels. Images of flamingos stumbling over cracked, dried up mud have shocked many in Spain. The site is also an important transit point for many migratory bird species.
The land around Doñana has become a major agricultural center for farmers who in previous decades shifted over from low-water crops like olives and grains to water-thirsty berries to boost revenues.
Farmers demanding water rights are owners of lands that were deemed non-irrigable when in 2004 an agreement was struck to manage farming activity around the reserve. Since then, the berry boom led to an estimated 1,000-2,000 illegal wells popping up nearby, according to studies carried out by environmental group WWF.
Spain's Agriculture Minister Luis Planas bluntly called the irrigation plan "illegal" earlier this week, saying politicians were promising access to water that “does not exist in that area.” The proposal, he added, risked “serious reputational damage” for Spain among its export partners, particularly Germany, which buys up a third of Spain's berries.
“(Doñana) is our heritage and therefore this government is going to do everything necessary so that this absolutely incomprehensible and absolutely irrational initiative never comes to fruition,” Planas said.