(CN) — Spain was reprimanded by a European magistrate on Thursday for not doing more to protect one of the continent's largest nature reserves, a marshy delta in Spain's dry southern region of Andalusia.
Advocate General Juliane Kokott of the European Court of Justice said Spain was violating European Union conservation rules by failing to protect the Doñana National Park’s aquifers, which are under immense pressure from farming.
Kokott's legal opinion came in a case brought against Spain by the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch. The commission is suing Spain to force it to take steps to better protect Doñana.
The advisory opinion serves as guidance for the Court of Justice's judges, who are considering the case. Opinions issued by advocates general are not binding on the court, but they often indicate how the court may rule.
The Doñana reserve is known for its marshes, ponds and sand dunes. It covers a large delta area on the southwestern coast of Spain and it is valued as an important habitat for birds migrating between Europe and Africa. At one time, dromedaries roamed the plain too. It is also treasured for its flora, such as thickets of white willows and silver poplars.
But the plain is also an important agricultural zone and a prime spot for strawberry farms, which need a lot of water. The problem is that farming – and a proliferation of illegal water wells – has led to the depletion of groundwater in the reserve and in turn left important ponds there dry for long periods.
Spain made the area a national park in 1969 and it was designated an EU protected area in 2006.
The commission sued Spain in July 2019 to force it to protect the reserve's aquifers.
Spain argued that it was implementing plans to reverse decades of water exploitation and it said many of the problems predated EU conservation regulations.
But Kokott said Spain's preservation plans were insufficient and pointed to studies showing that excessive water extraction is not only a historic problem but an ongoing one. She cited a report from an Andalusian ombudsman that found the Doñana aquifer and the surrounding area experiencing a drop in water of about 1% a year between 1994 and 2015.
The magistrate said Spain should have taken “appropriate measures to prevent the deterioration of protected habitat types as a result of groundwater abstraction.”
Spain also argued that its conservation plans must take into consideration the importance of the area's farms and their water needs.
“Such interests can in fact justify adverse effects on protected areas,” Kokott wrote. But she said Spain needed to do a more thorough assessment of the region's water needs and supplies to justify that argument. She also said Spain had not done enough to figure out how much water is extracted illegally. Spain estimated about 500 illegal wells irrigate about 1,100 hectares.
Kokott's legal opinion also rejected some of the commission's arguments. She said the commission hadn't proven that water extraction was increasing. She also found no fault with Spain's plans to bring water in from elsewhere, something the commission said wouldn't help improve the water problem in the Doñana reserve.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.