The Daimiel tables, the most punished national park in Spain and probably in Western Europe, has begun to receive a thread of life. A trickle, a minimal transfusion. On Wednesday, it began to receive water from the Tagus through the La Mancha plain pipeline, an infrastructure built more than a decade ago during a drought episode that transfers water from the Tagus to the Guadiana basin, but which had never come into service until the park.
In the photograph it looks like an oil spill or similar. A dark blue almost black stain reaches a yellowish brown ground. But it is water. It started running last Wednesday afternoon with the first load tests. The pipe of the plain of La Mancha was for more than 24 hours releasing water to the Tables of Daimiel National Park (Real city). The images spread like wildfire among the most veteran of the place because it has something of a milestone.
While awaiting the official inauguration, the water from the Tagus has arrived for the first time to Daimiel through this work —before he did it once through the dry riverbed of the Cigüela, which caused the vast majority to filter into the subsoil before reaching the national park—. This transfer is somewhat controversial and will not save the park, but it is one more page in a terrible story that began almost 70 years ago.
The tables began to die in July 1956, when the Franco regime approved the law "on sanitation and colonization of the marshy lands that extend immediately to the banks of the Guadiana, Cigüela, Záncara rivers and tributaries of the latter two in the provinces of Ciudad Real, Toledo and Cuenca" . Wetlands were seen as a source of malaria and the goal was to eradicate them. La Mancha humid, a huge wetland at the head of the Guadiana, was facing its end.
While the land was being cleared, an incipient environmental pressure led to the declaration of Las Tablas de Daimiel National Park in 1973. But giving it maximum protection could not help if irrigated land proliferated around it. Decades of overexploitation of aquifer 23, the enormous pocket of subsoil water that, when overflowing, forms Las Tablas, lowered the water level and Las Tablas periodically dried up in the 1980s and 1990s. flooded in wet periods.
In the fall of 2009, after several years of drought, the park's subsoil peat began to burn. It is a self-combustion process that had occurred in the area in dry seasons but had not occurred in the park for decades. With an investigation by the European Commission on top, the Government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero found an emergency solution. It was trying to accelerate the construction of the pipeline of the plain of La Mancha.
It is a work that allows the use of water from the Tajo-Segura Transfer. It was an old claim of Castilla-La Mancha and was approved in 1995, just in a period of drought comparable to the current one and in which another socialist government dealt with empty reservoirs.
In the fall of 2009, as it happened in that 1995, the rain suddenly appeared. So, when the first transfer to Las Tablas was sent in January 2010, it was pouring rain. As the pipeline was not finished despite the emergency works, the water made the last section through the Cigüela river. That river, one of the ones that gave rise to Las Tablas, is normally dry and the channel was consciously dug to dry it out, so sending water through there is like doing it on a fishing net: the vast majority infiltrates.
Days after the transfer began, abundant rain made it unnecessary. The then Secretary of State for the Environment, Josep Puxeu, responded graphically to the press when months later, and with the flooded Tables, they made him see that the transfer would no longer have been necessary: "As they say in my town, when you raise your tail it's easy to tell if it's male or female.”
Now, in the drought of 2022, with the prayers to the saints looming for autumn, the Ministry of Ecological Transition and the Junta de Castilla-La Mancha have rescued the pipe from the La Mancha plain. The agreement is to send three cubic hectometers now as a test and another as many in the fall. It's not much. But in Wednesday's tests, the water came directly into the park and was greeted by those who for so many years have fought in that wetland that periodically turns into a dusty desert.
Entire generations of National Parks technicians and other public bodies have fought to save the area for when someone in control decides to put a stop to irrigation.
One of them is Miguel Mejías, head of the hydrogeology area of the IGME CSIC National Center, who is one of those who has pushed to obtain this shipment: “The situation is critical. The park must have about 50 hectares flooded [de las 1.850 que tiene]the aquifer continues to drop by the order of one meter per year”.
Mejías has spent years studying the evolution of the aquifer and is one of those who has dates in his head. He was always optimistic about the recovery of the Tables. He was the one who gave the first warning when in 2017 the Ojos del Guadiana flooded for the first time in decades. It was a mirage and the water never came to flow. “In 2013 the wet period that began in 2009 ended and until 2018 there were contributions to the aquifer. Since 2018 there has been no more, ”he summarizes.
The transfer will not save the park, but it could leave a few hectares flooded and prevent the peat from burning again. In a interview with Efethe general director of Natural Environment and Biodiversity of the Ministry of Sustainable Development of Castilla-La Mancha, Félix Romero, announced that they hope to reach winter with 400 flooded hectares.
The transfer began to work on Wednesday in tests and the technicians of the public company Tragsa closed it on Thursday at five in the afternoon. The forecast is that on August 16 it will officially open again and on the 18th the water will begin to reach the park. The decision has had its controversy behind.
The Environmental Impact Statement of the work, from 1995, does not foresee the environmental use of the transfer. In addition, it supposes a transfer between different hydrographic basins but in this case there is no political controversy because it is within the same autonomous community.
Rafael Gosálvez, representative of the regional environmental organizations in the board of Las Tablas, is critical of the decision: “In theory, the pipe cannot flow into Las Tablas, because it is mouth water. We are totally opposed to a transfer of water from another basin. The day that this is consolidated is when the Guadiana farmers will stop seeing the problem and will only ask for water from outside. The only transfer that we are going to defend is that of La Mancha irrigation to the Tablas de Daimiel. That means stop watering. And the more we leave it, the worse it will be. If you oppose the transfer from the Tajo to the Segura, you have to oppose the Guadiana”.
Gosálvez, from Ecologists in Action in Ciudad Real, defends the use of emergency wells to prevent the peat from burning, but it is a controversial decision with the farmers, and more so at the gates of regional elections, so this year it will not be has approved. As in 2009, everyone is crossing their fingers that an extraordinarily wet autumn will make the transfer unnecessary.