The copper-colored waters of the Odiel river in Huelva contain heavy metals, sulfates and one of the highest degrees of acidity in Europe due to the nearby mining deposits exploited for centuries. That is why the construction of its only reservoir, that of Alcolea, paralyzed in 2017 is so tricky waiting for scientists verify if this contamination prevents human consumption and agricultural irrigation. The Junta de Andalucía – aligned with the irrigators – requires the Government to reactivate the works – it was built on 25% – and complete the dam, based on a report commissioned by the prestigious Dutch institute Deltares.
However, after certifying last February that the reservoir “would improve the quality of the river flow”, Deltares has just backtracked. The multinational consulting firm has recognized numerous errors in its calculations and has backed down in its conclusions in an addendum to the initial report, which it did without stepping on the ground, with only eight documents provided by the Board and in a month. “With a pH of 4.2 it would only be possible to lower iron levels, but other metals would remain and therefore would not contribute to improving water quality,” the institution now clarifies.
At the end of 2020 the New Culture of Water Foundation prepared a comprehensive report for the environmental organization WWF to demonstrate With scientific data to the Junta de Andalucía that the contamination of heavy metals made the dam unviable, unless it included an expensive subsequent treatment of the water of 28 million annually or restore all abandoned mine tailings, with a cost of more than 600 millions of euros. But instead of assuming the conclusions of the conservationists, the Board (PP and Citizens) responded to the warning with the commission of the report to Deltares to justify their demand to continue the works, as demanded by the Huelva irrigators to expand the crops of strawberries in 25. 000 more hectares of greenhouses.
“The Alcolea dam can now continue its work. Why? The ministry has shielded itself in the quality of the water, and the Board has entrusted a significant project to one of the most important entities in Europe with regard to water ”, announced the 25 March the Andalusian Minister of the Environment, Carmen Crespo, after receiving the initial favorable report from the Netherlands .
The Board sent this document to the Government to pressure it and, meanwhile, WWF and the New Culture of Water Foundation questioned the scientific calculations made by the Dutch institute. After several meetings between the experts from both teams, the multinational, with 877 employees and 120 millions of annual net turnover, admitted his serious errors ―which contravened quality standards based on science – in the addendum sent to conservationists “to clarify and make adjustments” to their critical comments. At the moment, the Board has not sent the Government this corrective appendix, according to ministry sources. The regional executive has refused to rule on the evidentiary labyrinth on which it bases its extreme defense of the reservoir.
In a written response sent to this newspaper, Deltares defends that it does not it violated any of its ethical principles and that the statement that “the water quality would improve with the dam” does not imply that the quality is “good or excellent”. The company labels its addendum as “exceptional” and ensures that it is in discussions with the Board to publish said appendix to the initial report on its website.
definitively the project? Almost. The ministry is awaiting receipt of a technical report prepared by the Center for the Study of Experimentation and Public Works (CEDEX, dependent on the Ministry of Development) on the Alcolea reservoir with 62 meters of elevation, but, as a precedent, Ecological Transition has eliminated this year 85 zombie prey of its 28 hydrographic basins . However, the Huelva basin of Tinto, Odiel and Piedras belongs to the Junta, which has warned the Government that, if it does not see the work as pertinent, it will put the 100 millions needed for the dam, to which the supply network must add. However, it will be very difficult for the Andalusian Executive to overcome the setback of ordering a report, for the response to be contrary to its interests, and still persist in the effort.
“Deltares was reckless as a prestigious body. We approached them to tell them that they had broken their ethical principles and scientific certainty, and that they had not reviewed the more than 48 scientific documents from universities such as Valencia or the Barcelona Polytechnic on Tinto and Odiel. In addition, the Board’s own technicians had already stated in 28 occasions the important doubts about the use of the waters in the dam, which they eliminated with a report of 30 pages of Deltares ”, censors Joan Corominas, vice president of the New Culture of Water Foundation and one of the five authors of the report for WWF. Leandro del Moral, professor of Human Geography at the University of Seville and also the author of the document, highlights the difficulty of telling an uncomfortable truth: “In the face of water pollution processes, there is always a sector that criticizes you for being catastrophic.”
Among the scientific studies on the ground, one from the University of Huelva alerted in 2007 that the water from the Alcolea reservoir “could not be used” and that the Environmental Impact Statement to endorse the project “was based on non-verified assumptions.” “The amount of toxic metals transported by the Odiel river at the end of the year is enormous: 4. 414 tons of aluminum, 2. 800 of iron, 2. 600 of zinc, etc. ”, concluded the experts in their article published in the journal of the Geological Society of Spain Geogaceta .
Deltares admits up to nine technical failures like this: “The PH [escala que mide la acidez del agua] of the reservoir was estimated as the mixture of different waters, taking into account only the proton acidity, but not that Al (aluminum), Fe (iron) and other elements hydrolyze with precipitation and release new protons to the medium, which limits the scope of our simplified estimate ”. And procedural: “The exact information that there are mines in operation that contribute to the current pollution of the rivers was not provided to us. The Board required the calculations to be made using the information provided by them to simplify the analysis (…) Our report did not analyze whether the improvement in the quality of the water implied that it was used for agriculture or other uses. Answering that question requires a more detailed study, as stressed by WWF and FNCA. ”
Upstream from the projected dam, the Riotinto copper mine is home to three colossal rafts with 182 million cubic meters of toxic waste. Nearby, the Tintillo River stands out for its orange color and great acidity.
In parallel to the use for irrigation, the intention of the Board is that part of that water stored in Alcolea —despite its contamination— It was transferred to Doñana, whose aquifers have been depleted for decades by strawberry farmers. “If the Alcolea dam is not completed, it would be devastating for Doñana because this infrastructure would serve to relieve pressure from the aquifers. To bury this project would be to bury the future of Huelva’s people ”, warned Crespo. The inaction of the administrations has allowed the looting of groundwater through illegal wells by strawberry farmers on farms near the nature reserve for two decades.
Now it remains to be seen that the Board modify its provisional conclusions, presented after receiving the first Deltares report in the document Outline of Important Issues of the Odiel River Basin District: ” The water quality of the future Alcolea reservoir will be better than the current one of the Odiel river and other rivers such as the Oraque, and the prospects are that it will be better than that of other reservoirs in the region (…) Therefore, allusions to the quality of the water ”. Satisfied with these conclusions prior to the addendum, Juan Antonio Millán, president of the association of irrigation communities of Huelva (Corehu), adds: “The dam has become a flag and it will be done yes or yes. Now everything is suddenly wrong in Huelva? ”
Since in 2001 the reservoir was declared of general interest of the State, the debate in this Andalusian province has silenced the reports against its construction, due in part to the relevant role played by the agricultural sector in the Huelva economy. Berry greenhouses employ nearly 100. 000 people, mostly immigrants , with a turnover of 12. 333 million in 2020, 7% of Andalusian agricultural production. On the controversy, Rafael Seiz, head of the WWF water program, ditch: “Those waters without previous treatment cannot be used, the toxic substances would reach the strawberries, not to mention the corrosion of the pipes. And even with all the technology to treat that water on a massive scale, the cost far outweighs the benefit. That water would not be used because no one would pay to use it [unos 0,39 euros el metro cúbico]. It makes no sense to spend that public money. ”
You can follow CLIMA AND ENVIRONMENT in Facebook and Twitter , or sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter