A Wetland Hangs in the Balance...And Villagers Are Up in Arms

After the wettest winter on record in Spain, the Ebro is full to the brim. Swirling past Tortosa's medieval facades, the river flows on to the delta wetlands, through rice paddies and flocks of pink flamingos, finally discharging into the Mediterranean. A waste of good freshwater, you might think--especially in Spain, where H2O is scarcer than ever.

That, at least, is the rationale behind the government's controversial plan, now before parliament, to divert water from the Ebro at a rate of 31 cubic meters a second. Why let thousands of gallons flow into the sea if it can be piped to water-deficient areas south of the river, to the tourist sprawl around Valencia or the hot-house tomato orchards of the Almerian desert? The government says the plan will guarantee an ecologically sufficient flow throughout the year. "The water to be removed is surplus and insignificant for the Ebro," says José María Piñero, head of water policy in the Environment Ministry.

Yet Ramón Carles, who cultivates mussels in one of the delta lagoons near Tortosa, feels he's already a victim of earlier attempts to draw off the Ebro's "excess" flow. Since a previous bypass was built a decade ago, he has seen his mussel colonies grow smaller and sicklier. "Below 1.5 meters, few survive," he complains. The reason, say local biologists, is that less nutrient-bearing freshwater is making it into the lagoon. The new plan will be the end of the Ebro mussel, says Carles. Rice farmers also fear that salt water levels will rise and ruin their paddies.

For the government, there's far more at stake here than seafood paella. Ever since General Francisco Franco launched his dam-building program in the late 1940s, successive administrations, both authoritarian and democratic, have sought to correct the imbalance in rainfall between Spain's verdant northern regions and the arid interior and south. The latest $17 billion plan is a priority for José María Aznar's conservative government. But critics say Aznar is repeating the errors of the past: massive public works that guarantee profits for construction companies and utilities but don't address the real problem of wasteful consumption and leakage. "We are pursuing water policies that California abandoned decades ago," says Pedro Arrojo, a water engineer at Zaragoza University.

GOLF COURSES. Environmentalists say diverting water to tourist areas on the coast will just add to the problem of overdevelopment. The proliferation of hundreds of thirsty golf courses along the "water-deficient" Costa del Sol drives home the point. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Barcelona and Madrid in February and March, demanding that the plan be shelved and that the government adopt a more frugal "culture of water."

In the long term, the delta, one of the Mediterranean's three protected wetlands, is fighting for survival, adds Arrojo. If the plan goes ahead, the lack of sediment carried down by the river will cause the delta to sink faster than it already is. Combine that with an expected rise in sea level, and most of the wetlands could disappear in 10 to 20 years.

Anger over water projects isn't confined to the delta. Five hours upriver from Tortosa by car, below snow-capped Pyrenean peaks, villagers in Yesa and Biscarrués staged a general strike last October to protest plans to build new dams and reservoirs and extend existing ones. The strike paid off, with the government announcing it would not enlarge the reservoir that would flood the village of Sigües. But a handful of villagers from the hamlet of Eres will see their homes submerged. Five Romanesque hermitages and a stretch of the Camino de Santiago, trodden by thousands of pilgrims and walkers every summer, will also disappear.

While the government says water storage will help boost the development of the area and has promised to build a center for environmental studies in Yesa, locals are dead set against the plan. "They think the reservoirs will store water not for their benefit but for the wealthy coastal areas," says José Luis Latas, a local environmentalist who set up the Web page SOS Pireneos.com to build international support.

Dam construction is scheduled to begin in late April in Yesa. So is the second wave of protests by environmentalists and villagers, who on Apr. 23 set up camp in Zaragoza. They figure a prolonged sit-in just might keep the waters from rising.

By Andy Robinson in Tortosa

Edited by Harry Maurer

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.