Spain is being warned not to expand irrigation near a valuable and threatened wetland, as the EU threatens to take measures.

The Doñana wetlands are a UNESCO world heritage site, one of the key biospheres of Europe. They sit on the coast in the southwest of Spain, where the Guadalquivir River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The 182,000 acres of the delta area major wintering site for waterfowl migrating from Africa to northern Europe.

The European Court of Justice condemned Spain for neglecting the wetlands in 2021. That was followed by a first letter from Florika Fink-Hooijer, the head of the EU’s Directorate General for the Environment, urging Spain to take action. The central government responded with a plan to speed up the closing of illegal wells near the park, a plan to reroute surface water from a nearby river basin, and by pledging $377 million to protect the reserve. Little of that has materialized.

The wetlands have always been threatened by local farmers. The aquifer that lies beneath the marshes holds a tempting amount of water, and illegal wells are hard to find to stop. Things were made much worse by the record heat and drought of 2022.

The Popular Party, a conservative Spanish political party that holds power in the south of Spain, is pushing for a new law that would allow more irrigation to be dug in near the wetlands for farming.

In response, Fink-Hooijer in her official capacity has sent another letter. This time, the urging included that Spain could face fines if authorities continue to fail at safeguarding Doñana. Her letter said that it is “necessary to immediately ensure the strict protection of Doñana’s exceptional natural treasures, especially taking into account that rainfall is increasingly scarce due to climate change.”

If the Popular Party’s plan goes through, approximately 650 farmers would be licensed to irrigate their farmland around Doñana. Regional authorities say that the water to do so would come from surface water, not wells and the aquifers. But local farmers say there is already not enough surface water for them and additional demand would force them to use wells.

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