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Ebro threat eased but not over

Ebro water transfer stopped, but Delta IBA still threatened

The new Spanish government has halted plans to transfer 100 billion litres of water from the Ebro River to agribusiness users and massive housing development on the Mediterranean coast. Citing costs and environmental reasons, the government instead proposes a package of measures including desalination plants and water conservation. But the flow of water and sediment on which the ecological health of the Delta depends is still at risk from the basin plan for the Ebro River, which calls for many new dams and irrigation projects in the middle basin.

The amount diverted from the Ebro under the water transfer plan would have been equivalent to one-third of Spain`s domestic water consumption. The scheme would have destroyed the habitat on which at least 55 bird species depend, including Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis, Audouin`s Gull Larus audouinii, Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus rubber and Glossy Ibis Plegardis falcinellus. The Delta is also an important stopover point for migratory birds from Europe and Africa. Environment Minister Cristina Narbona says the 15 desalination plants proposed would provide the same amount of water as the pipeline, but sooner and more cheaply. Everyone can understand that it`s more logical to build a desalination plant close to where the water is needed, than bringing water through a 900km pipeline.

The Ebro Delta is the second most Important Bird Area in Spain. Part is protected as a Natural Park, and it has also been designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) for birds, and a Ramsar site under the International Convention on Wetlands. SEO (BirdLife in Spain) has for some years been involved in restoration of organic bird friendly rice growing methods in the Delta, with benefits both for the environment and for local people. The transfer project would have starved the rice fields of water and nutrient-rich sediment, and depleted fish stocks, forcing farmers and fisherman to leave the area. Dr Carles Iba?ez of SEO`s Ebro Delta office says that as well as desalination, the government`s alternative proposals include use of water from water treatment plants, improvements in the efficiency of the supply network, and changing prices to promote efficiency in water use. Here in the Ebro Delta there will also be a significant budget for environmental restoration, including riparian (riverside) forests and wetland ecosystems.We have stopped the water transfer, but still have threats from the basin plan said Dr Carles Iba?ez of SEO/BirdLife

The restored wetlands will function as biological filters, to improve water quality and reduce eutrophication. There will also be measures to enable fish to move more freely along the river, such as `fish passes` over dams. However, the Delta is still at risk from dams and irrigation projects along the Ebro. We have stopped the water transfer, but still have threats from the basin plan, Carles says. The second step must be to modify the basin plan and make it sustainable. But here the position is not so clear. The government of Aragon is mostly in favour of new dams and irrigation, so there will be a conflict between the middle Ebro and the upper and lower Ebro. The people of the upper basin, in the Pyrenees, don`t want the dams, and here in the lower Ebro we don`t want them. The flow of sediment to the Delta would be reduced by dams, and new irrigation would severely decrease water quality and quantity. We have to fight to reduce the dams and irrigation proposals, Carles says. They make no economic or environmental sense nowadays, and they cause a lot of social conflict.

4th July 2014