12-02-2019 ~ 1 Comment

Priorat continues trying to reclaim the Siurana River

Each and every river begins with a single drop of water. It may not be apparent when looking at such mighty torrents as the Amazon or Congo, but somewhere, deep in a far-flung hinterland, one small drop began trickling downhill to be joined by others and form a river that will eventually vanish into a sea. The river has carried our civilization into the modern age, but at the same time, has nurtured the malign side of humanity with the technology and know-how to kill it.

“Volem lo riu Siurana viu” in Catalan means, “We want the Siurana River alive”. These handmade signs dot the various bridges over the main river that flows through Priorat County in Catalunya and their message is clear, the residents want their river to both thrive and be returned to them.

Originating in the Prades Mountains, the Siurana River snakes across the county of Priorat passing through both the DOQ Priorat and DO Montsant appellations. There is a reservoir which wraps around the scenic clifftop village of Siurana, from which the river takes its name, after which there is a diversion just east of the village of Poboleda. From this point on the river is dry in Priorat as the water is piped out to the neighboring county of Baix Camp and stored in the Riudecanyes Reservoir. This diversion was built in 1934 despite heavy local protests but ultimately Baix Camp, with its much higher population (currently 189,000 vs. Priorat’s 9,000) won out and the diverted water was initially used for agricultural irrigation in the region.

As time has gone on, a diversion of the Ebre River was built that made the Riudecanyes Reservoir mostly unnecessary. Raül Romeva (currently “detained” for being part of the Catalan government that declared independence) was previously a member of the European Parliament with ICV (part of the European Greens) and took the case to the European Council in February, 2014. He argued that the diversion was causing untold ecologic damage to the Priorat region as 96% of the river’s water is diverted outside the county. The council ruled favorably for the case that Romeva had brought and stated that an adequate level of water for the Siurana River needed to return by 2015 to restore the biosphere. But this hasn’t happened yet, apparently due to the simple question of cost in that water from the reservoir costs 36% less a liter than that from the Ebre. Although farmers in Baix Camp are now complaining that the reservoir is also being tapped illegally for drinking water use due to its lower price.

While the Priorat group fighting for the return of water to the Siurana River has existed since 2010, it was the flaunting of the European Council’s ruling by the Riudecanyes Irrigation corporation along with increasingly hot vintages that have fired them up over the summer of 2015–a summer that broke temperature records in the region. They formed an association comprised of members from the affected villages and elected Jordi Aixalà as the initial spokesperson of the group.

Jordi was the mayor of Torroja for the last 12 years and is also a local winemaker at his Aixalà Alcait winery. He states, “My father recalls that the river would only be dry in summer after 3-4 years of drought. From the 1980s onward, the river has been dry for the vast majority of the year. This lack of water has heavily increased the overall humidity in Priorat and has been detrimental to curb the rising temperatures in the region overall as we’re lacking this natural climactic regulation we would receive from the river. It’s been detrimental to the winemaking, but also agriculture in general as there is no possible way to grow any crop that needs regular irrigation.”

Anyone familiar with viticulture in Spain knows that both humidity and hot temperatures can be extremely problematic, especially in the case of Grenache (which comprises 40% of the vineyards plantings in DOQ Priorat & DO Montsant) where it can make for unbalanced, highly alcoholic wines. But beyond this, winemakers in Priorat are especially attached to their local environment as shown by Sara Pérez of Mas Martinet (which has the Siruana River wrapping around her winery) and whose Els Esçurons vineyards was scorched by a lighting strike fire during the summer. She says, “We can replant the vines that we lost, but we’re very concerned about the damage to the forest that surrounds the vineyard which will take decades to recover.”

This overall concern for the biodiversity of the region is what attracts the winemakers and makes the highly-regarded wines but it is also what mobilizes those who live there to fight what has been ordained as an illegal theft of the water that flows through their territory but from 2015 until the end of 2018, there was essentially no action–possibly due to all the events surrounded independence or just because there was little desire for those with the water to change the status quo. If you visited Priorat in the winter or spring, you’d see an ambling trickle of water. If there during the summer or fall, you’d think a river never existed.

Perhaps due to 2018 seeing double the typical amount of normal rainfall for the region, last December marked a turning as the agriculturists union and those managing the reservoir entered talks to negotiate some kind of “reasonable” future. For the Priorat side of the table, ideally, they want to have the river flowing at 100% normal levels again. For those in Baix Camp County with the reservoir, they’ll obviously resist this as much as possible given that irrigation has become dependent on the price of water from this reservoir and there’s even a company offering kayaking…

The talks are continuing and the fact that they’re happening and have had three sit-down sessions to date marks a wealth of progress on this front. They look to continue through June of this year and by the point, we’ll see what resolution is to come of this.

As always, time will tell. Those producing wine in Priorat are anxiously awaiting results not so much for irrigation but more due to the fact that they are dealing with increasingly-humid conditions each year in a region that was famed historically for its dryness to cultivate intense, delicious grapes.

If interested in following this campaign find out more at: Volem lo riu Siurana viu and their Facebook Group.