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Barcelona, Spain

Upstream, Downstream River, Episode 2

The Llobregat delta coexists with the hustle and bustle of Barcelona Airport, the city's port, extensive agricultural fields, and the urban life that hosts nearly two million people. 

The second episode of the podcast series "Upstream, Downstream River" begins with Enric de Roa Bonel, a member of the Consortium for the Protection of the Llobregat River. Enric shared essential details about the history of this place, dating back to 1994 year when the Delta Plan was established—an ambitious infrastructure project that significantly altered the geography. Transformations included the diversion of the river, the expansion of the port of Barcelona, the construction of the large wastewater treatment plant in El Prat, and the enlargement of the airport. 

According to Enric, this plan divided the area into infrastructure, agricultural, and natural zones. While it seemed like a functional puzzle on paper, reality proved to be more complicated. Decisions, such as expanding the airport between two wetland areas, illustrate the inherent challenges of planning in such a diverse environment. 

The Llobregat Delta maintains two aquifers that play critical roles. The deep-water layer, located between 50 and 60 meters underground, stands out as a vital reserve. This "water bag" holds water resources in optimal conditions, contributing to the stability of the environment. 

However, the focus is on the shallow aquifer, the water bag closest to the surface and, unfortunately, in a less favorable state. Enric raises the crucial question: why doesn't this water layer enjoy the same quality as its deeper counterpart? The answer to this question stems from the state of the Delta's lagoons, collectively experiencing 90% water pollution. This situation prompted the Spanish government and the Catalonia Public Administration (Generalitat de Cataluña) to take urgent measures, as the European Union has set a deadline for the restoration of this ecosystem by 2027. 

According to Enric, one consequence of this pollution is found in the direct connection to the soil. This superficial layer, vulnerable to the whims of the terrain, becomes a direct receptor of all nutrients and contaminants that infiltrate. A clear example is the use of pesticides in agriculture: when applied to the soil, these products can seep with irrigation, reaching directly into the shallow aquifer. 

This phenomenon gains relevance when considering the coastal lagoons, authentic gems of the Delta. Enric emphasizes that these lagoons, essential for local biodiversity, are all interconnected with the shallow aquifer. Pollution of this water layer not only affects the water quality supporting these aquatic ecosystems but also raises concerns about the environmental state of the Llobregat Delta. 

In the grandeur of the Agricultural Park of Baix Llobregat, where fertile land turns into a tapestry of orchards, water management stands as a fundamental pillar for agricultural sustainability. Covering nearly 12% of Catalonia's surface and horticultural production, this park stands as a small agricultural giant composed of 318 farms distributed on small plots ranging from 3 to 10 hectares each, involving 14 municipalities. 

In this place, the manager of this park, Helena Perxacs, confidently responds that they are not responsible for significant nutrient pollution in the water. To explain, she describes how they receive water from the aquifers and regenerated water provided by the Catalan Water Agency and Barcelona Water Agency. Additionally, when asked how they feel when accused of interfering in water quality, she asserts that the question should be reversed and challenges the conventional perspective by posing the crucial question: what is the quality of water for agricultural use? She acknowledges that, to ensure food security, it is imperative for agriculture to have quality water. This focus, according to Perxacs, should precede any other consideration. 

To conclude this podcast episode, Antoni Munne from the Catalan Water Agency describes the agricultural processes in Catalonia and is confident about the control this agency maintains over the quality of regenerated water. At the same time, he states that there is not enough data to consider alarming eutrophication processes on the coasts of Catalonia. Everything else is under the control of this agency, according to the official. 

Munne highlighted the progress made in reducing chemical pollution in recent years. However, he pointed out that future efforts should focus on improving river habitats and managing emerging contaminants. He also emphasized the need to address point-source discharges during rains so that they do not continue to interfere with water quality.

Listen to the English version of this podcast (translated by AI): 

And the the original Spanish version: 

  • Listen to Episode 1 of this podcast series. 

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first broadcast in Carijonas on 24 November 2023 in Spanish; this version has been adapted by EJN's Mediterranean Media Initiative.

Banner image: Delta del Llobregat / Credit: CarmenCab via Wikicommons.