The rain in Spain means transfer falls again

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With Catalunya’s reservoirs back above 50% capacity, the Barcelona water transfer scheme has been called off. The cost of shipping in water will hurt government budgets for months to come.

The controversial plan to construct a pipeline to transfer water from the Ebro river to the city of Barcelona has been scrapped only six weeks after the Spanish government approved emergency legislation enabling the project.

The Catalan government decided on 3rd June to ask Madrid to revoke the legislation, after levels in the reservoirs in the Ter- Llobregat basin which supply Barcelona reached 53% of capacity, triggering the relaxation of drought restrictions initially imposed in April 2007. Restrictions were simultaneously relaxed across the whole of Catalunya, except in the far north. When legislation enabling the proposed 60km pipeline was approved, levels in Catalan reservoirs were just above 20% of capacity.

The decision to scrap the pipeline could in theory render the government liable to pay over €9 million in compensation, equivalent to 6% of the €164 million contract awarded on 8 May to a construction consortium headed by Agbar. However Jordi Mercader, president of Agbar, has said that the Catalan company will renounce its rights in this regard.

Another emergency measure to supply Barcelona – the delivery of water by tanker from the ports of Marseilles and Tarragona – may not prove so cheap to terminate. The contract with Marmedsa Group and Woship Maritime to deliver 1.66 million m3 a month (55,300m3/d) runs until 15 August, but the Catalan government has said that it is studying the cost implications of halting deliveries. A spokesman for the Catalan Water Agency (ACA) said the cost of water shipped in so far has averaged about €1.00/ m3, and according to Catalan environment minister Francesc Baltasar, the autonomous government has so far spent €53 million on shipping, plus a further €14 million on the adaptation of port infrastructure.

Though she has called off the Barcelona transfer, Spain’s new environment minister Elena Espinosa appears to have reversed her predecessor Cristina Narbona’s opposition to transfers on principle as being contrary to the spirit and letter of the Water Framework Directive.

At a meeting with irrigators this month, the minister promised “water for ever” and gave a commitment to “provide water resources to satisfy demand, once adequate studies have been made”. She also promised that “any economically viable, environmentally sound, socially acceptable and politically responsible transfer” will be considered. An environment ministry spokeswoman acknowledged a change of emphasis in water policy, saying the ministry is now “more open to considering” transfers. Meanwhile, the governing PSOE party has also just agreed to Catalan CiU party demands to make a “multidisciplinary study” of the possibility of transferring water from the Rhône river in France into Catalunya.