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EU inquiry asks Spain to explain dry wetland

By Daniel Woolls
Associated Press / October 23, 2009

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MADRID - The European Union has launched an investigation into a prized Spanish wetland that has turned bone dry through mismanagement of water resources and is on fire underground, white smoke now rising from areas where fish once swam.

The EU wants the Spanish government to explain how it plans to save Las Tablas de Daimiel National Park in the central Castilla-La Mancha region, Barbara Helfferich, European Commission spokeswoman, said yesterday.

The park, one of Spain’s few wetlands, is classified as a UNESCO biosphere site and an EU-protected area because of its birdlife.

But it has been drying up for decades, largely because of wells dug by farmers on the edges of the park to tap an aquifer that feeds the wetland’s lagoons. Many of the wells are illegal. Environmentalists call this case a particularly glaring example of how a natural resource can be abused.

In August, intense summer heat and parched soil caused the peat just under the surface of the soil to ignite spontaneously. Now, several areas of the park are on fire underground and white smoke seeps out of deep cracks in the parched soil.

“We have seen a situation where there is continuous degradation of territory,’’ Helfferich said from Brussels.

The EU told the Spanish government about its investigation last week, and Spain has 10 weeks to explain how it plans to respond to the crisis, Helfferich said.

“Underground fires at the moment cannot be extinguished,’’ she said, adding that the 27-nation bloc has asked Spain how it plans to deal with it.

In a worst-case scenario, the EU could punish Spain with a hefty fine if it deems the government’s management of the wetlands insufficient.

Josep Puxeau, the Environment Ministry’s top official on water issues, said the government has an emergency plan to pump in torrents of water from a river to put out the fires and restore the aquifer.

It will also continue with a policy of buying up land and farms outside the park to halt water being drawn from wells, he told reporters. The park lies 90 miles south of Madrid. Not all of it is wetland. The area capable of holding water covers about 4,500 acres, but less than 1 percent of that has water.

Park ranger Jesus Garcia Consuegra, who grew up in the area, remembers lusher times.

“It was so clear you could see to the bottom,’’ he said in a documentary on the park’s website.