07-08-2019 ~ 2 Comments

When the village goes dry

On July 25th the village of Gratallops ran out of water. A village of 226 people, 23 wineries, three hotels, multiple holiday rentals, and seven restaurants/cafés had neither water to drink, nor to shower with, nor do much of anything. The taps and more importantly, the main water deposit, were completely dry.

The fact this didn’t happen in the middle of harvest was a miracle given the quantity of water necessary to clean cellar equipment constantly. But, just because it happened at the end of July instead of September didn’t mean that day to day life was made any easier.

The restaurants and hotels in the village had to close during the shortage and the temporary solution was for large tanker trucks to bring in water to fill the village deposit. While laborious and costly, it worked to buy time so that a fix in the supply line could be put in place.

The irony is that despite having a small river wrapping around the bottom of the hill upon which the village sits, Gratallops can’t get any municipal water from it. Much like Torroja del Priorat, Poboleda, and Porrera (or as they’re known in water concerns, “Topograpo”) the diversion of water to the Riudecanyes Reservoir (pantà in Catalan) in neighboring Baix Camp County has left the Siurana River dry most of the year.

This has been an ongoing problem with the “Comunitat de Regants de Riudecanyes” (Riudecanyes Irrigation Group) which came to a head starting in 2015 which led to demonstrations and signs around the region that still persist four years later because while some negotiations happened in late 2018, the situation largely remains at a standstill.

Essentially, the “Regants” are of the opinion they have no legal obligation to let any water pass the diversion point as they contributed to build both the pantans of Siurana (in Priorat County) and Riudecanyes (in Baix Camp County.) If and when any water is let into Priorat, the Regants paint as a massive sacrifice on their part as the reservoir “supports 3,500 families in Baix Camp County”.

This ignores the fact that the reservoir is largely used to irrigate hazelnut and olive trees which actually don’t need it as shown by those same crops in Priorat County all being dry farmed. Yes, the yields are far smaller but the point is, these are crops that don’t need irrigation unless one is producing them on an industrial scale. And then of course there’s the fact that 9,000 people live in Priorat as well as the 170 wineries within the region that are dependent upon this water just as much now as they have been historically.

It wasn’t always like this and the Riudecanyes Reservoir was initially built back in the early 20th century with completion in 1918 to store the rainwater that washed through the seasonal stream of the village, Riudecanyes. It’s worth mentioning that this was a period of time in Europe, as well as North America, where environmental concerns were thought of in a secondary or even tertiary capacity to expansion and industrialization.

This is why it makes it incredulous that the reservoir was then expanded upon in a later phase starting in 1989 that raised the total storage from 2.9 hm³ to 5.3 hm³–a 45% increase that largely took advantage of the Pantà de Siurana that was opened in 1973 to store the river water. It’s in this phase of the last decade or so of the 20th century that residents of Priorat started seeing problems and noting that the Siurana River, which would run year round, albeit as a trickle in summer, started going dry for at least two if not something six months of the year.

Despite the European Commission ruling in February, 2014 that the water diverted to Riudecanyes had to be reduced to allow some into Priorat, there has been no movement towards meeting this regulation. What is generally seen is that when something unfavorable happens (as seen with Gratallops going dry) the Riudecanyes group will “contribute” a bit more of “their” water. This simply doesn’t work and there have been and continue to be a series of knock on effects in having the river run dry for so much of the year. I would see it in summer when living in the village of Porrera (the last ‘po’ in Topograpo) that as soon as all water was being diverted away, the small Cortiella River (which is a tributary to the Siurana) in Porrera would go immediately dry as well.

Common sense dictates that all these water systems in the rocky region of Priorat are connected and there are doubtlessly many underground aquifers that are being fed. The size of what lies beneath the surface was shown no better than during the construction of the 4km Argentera train tunnel into the region where they came upon a massive cave holding water deep inside the mountains.

Upon hearing that Gratallops had gone dry (and it wasn’t the first time), on July 29th I traced the route of the Siurana River from where it ends and meets the Ebre all the way back up to the diversion and then out to the reservoir.

The Mouth

You would be forgiven for not realizing that the photo to the right is actually that of a river. This is about 500m from where the river theoretically empties into the much larger Ebre River and as you can see, there’s not much to see. In walking about, everything was bone dry and appeared to be so for some time. Had I not known exactly where to look on the map, I would never have realized that this slight indentation in the ground was actually the path of a river.

I stopped by the restaurant Pas de l’Ase in Garcia which is right next to this sad state of a river and asked the fellow at the main counter named Marc as to when the river went dry this year. He said it was in the second half of April which goes to show that the problem is actually a lot worse than what people further upstream realize. He did emphasize that he has a small parcel of land a few kilometers up the river and that the water there maybe stopped back in early June as it disappears earlier at the mouth due to passing underground in various places before that.

But this all shows how important it is that the river keep flowing. Priorat has at its base a large segment of limestone soil. Not having the water flow is choking off a natural feeding of the ground water and we’re only starting to see the ecological damage the decades of pulling water from the region have caused.

Those who can drill new wells, like the county capital of Falset, are currently doing so as they had to replace one that just ran dry after 25 years of service due to the incredibly low rainfall of 350mm (15in) in most years; 2018 being the very rare exception. But while they have plans to encircle the village with seven different wells, it’s a short-term fix if the aquifers aren’t being replenished due to the Siurana water being siphoned off. This newest well was bored to 38m. Those in the future will undoubtedly go deeper but, as shown in California during the recent drought, you can only go so far until there’s nothing more to be had.

The village in question

While the Siurana River wraps around the bottom of the hill upon which the village of Gratallops sits, getting down to it is a pretty massive trek on foot and the roads through the vineyards that delineate the slopes are only accessible by 4×4. So, I pulled off at the winery of Mas Martinet which sits just outside the village due to its being embraced by a bend in the river.

As one can see in the photo, like the mouth of the river, it’s bone dry here as well. That photo isn’t a gravel excavation pit but a pool that’s full of water when the river is flowing. There hadn’t been any for some time however thus showing the reason why the village itself has become so dependent upon this water line coming from the diversion as no river equals no groundwater and thus, not even wells are possible.

The diversion

Following the dead river further, you pass the village of Torroja and then Poboleda. Just before you arrive to the road to Cornudella, there is a a restaurant called Porta del Priorat and behind it runs a dirt road that I’d really not noticed until setting out on this adventure. Down that bumpy road you arrive to a very nice 16th century masia called, Molí dels Aubins.

And there’s the diversion, a lush holding pond of water, completely full while the river runs dry. The trees and vegetation around the area are verdant as it’s green year round due to the water constantly being piped out from this holding pond. I spotted fresh boar tracks near the edge.

What’s curious is the day I passed by, there was a small amount of water trickling past but I actually crossed the Siurana at Poboleda three weeks previous and it was utterly dry. While in the past there has been “sabotage” by the local activists who opened the gates to let the water flow, the water I saw appeared to be an intentional outflow as if the water was released in response to Gratallops going dry and the irrigation group wanting to save face.

El Pantà de Riudecanyes

As one can see to the right, there’s not much bad to say about the reservoir of Riudecanyes. It’s well signed to get there so you don’t get caught up in the winding streets of the village, not that it would be hard to miss given that its broad, cement and stone face dominates the view upon arrival.

Once on top, there’s a small café to have a drink aptly called, “Bar Pantà de Riudecanyes”. Once fully refreshed if one chooses, you can take a nice stroll across the top of the dam which is well lit and, upon glancing to the left offers a lovely view of the Riudecanyes village and the Mediterranean Sea behind it. To the right, there’s the water of the reservoir itself.

A brave soul stood in the blustery midday sun at the shore, casting a fishing line. Others splashed about on the opposite side, lounging in the cool, deep water. Kayaks drifted listlessly in the middle where they were docked–going out for a cruise on the water is a fun activity; in fact it’s one that’s been promoted by the Costa Daurada tourism board.

The reservoir would be a lovely addition to what is an otherwise dry coast but in having created this, they’ve choked off an entire county in the interior, without regard for the people living there and what is one of the highest-quality wine regions in Catalunya, if not Spain seen in both DOQ Priroat as well as DO Montsant. While the Riudecanyes reservoir is at only 37% of capacity and Siurana, 41%, this isn’t always the case as shown by last year where, despite double the rainfall, Riudecanyes sat at 46% full this time of year and Siurana sat at a miserly 15%.

Will there be resolution to the discussions and an eventual obeying of the ruling of the EU? Given that the infrastructure is all in place as it has been for nigh on the last century, it seems doubtful, especially as there’s the option to get water that’s slightly more expensive, directly from the Ebre River but which no one wants to pay more for.

Someday, a resolution may come about but it admittedly may be the case that another couple of villages will have to run out of water for any hands to be forced on the issue.