Over-consumption and drought reduce lake in vital Spanish wetland to puddle
Experts and environmentalists say aquifer feeding Doñana national park, a Unesco heritage site, has been overexploited for tourism and to water fruit farms
The largest permanent lake in Spain’s Doñana national park, one of Europe’s biggest and most important wetlands, has shrivelled to a small puddle as years of drought and overexploitation take their toll on the aquifer that feeds the area and sustains millions of migrating birds.
On Monday, experts from Spain’s National Research Council (CSIC) said the Santa Olalla lake, which sits in a Unesco world heritage site, had dried up for the third time in 50 years.
“The Santa Olalla lake, the largest permanent lake in Doñana and the last one that still had water in August, has dried up,” the CSIC said in a statement. “In recent days, it has been reduced to a small puddle at its centre, where there are now no aquatic birds.”
Water supplies to Doñana, whose marshes, forests and dunes extend across almost 130,000 hectares (320,000 acres) in the Andalucían provinces of Huelva, Seville and Cádiz, have declined drastically over the past 30 years because of climate breakdown, farming, mining pollution and marsh drainage.
Environmental groups have long campaigned to protect the area – which is also home to a major population of endangered Iberian lynxes – saying that illegal wells sunk to feed the region’s numerous soft fruit farms were stressing the aquifer.
However, their warnings were ignored by rightwing MPs in the regional parliament, who voted earlier this year to “regularise” 1,461 hectares of land near the national park, allowing farmers who have sunk the illegal wells and built illicit plantations on the land to legitimise their operations.
“The continuous exploitation of the aquifer for intensive agriculture and human consumption – together with the dry years like this one – mean that not only are the Doñana’s temporary lakes disappearing, its permanent ones are also under threat,” said the CSIC.
The council said that while Doñana’s lakes, marshes and rice fields had historically offered a refuge to wildlife, 10 consecutive years of below-average rainfall had changed the local environment and forced many birds to seek alternative wetlands.