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Water quality management in Spain

  • Water quality management in Spain

About the blog

Lluís Godé
Secretary of ADECAGUA's Board of Directors.

Spain's long background in water management is well known: soon it will be 100 years since the creation of river basin authorities and the introduction of the concept of water resources planning at the basin level, and not by political or administrative units, something Spain pioneered in Europe.

Even older are management efforts by historical irrigation associations or the existence of the unique Water Court in Valencia.

However, incorporating water quality concerns into planning and management efforts took some time; these were further advanced in other regions of Europe, and were not really even considered in Spain until well into the second half of the past century.

Gradually, overcoming the resistance of institutions very focused on quantity issues but reluctant to new concepts, issues related to the sources and the deterioration of water quality became more important, and voices that called for greater involvement in restoring water resources gained weight. Initially it was done in order to protect water uses such as the domestic supply, not from an ecosystem perspective.

Spain has been a pioneer in water reuse, particularly in Mediterranean areas, where water availability is scarce

Nevertheless, quality considerations were based on physico-chemical aspects and in general basic parameters, but did not include biological aspects nor fluvial spaces as a system.

Concepts such as waste water treatment were gradually included, now increasingly more demanding and applied to smaller populations, and more attention was paid to a vital issue such as long term maintenance by professional teams.

Water treatment was expanded to include all activities with a potentially polluting effluent, best available techniques were introduced, together with storm water management, and later on pollutants known as priority pollutants, emerging contaminants, pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) and so on.

Spain has been a pioneer in water reuse, particularly in Mediterranean areas, where water availability, linked to water quality, has always been scarce to meet the existing needs. And more so nowadays, taking into account the undeniable effects of climate change.

The arrival of the well-known Water Framework Directive (WFD) consolidated water resources planning in terms of water quantity and based on river basin districts as the planning unit, introducing as well a series of concepts involved in what is known as a good ecological status of water bodies; our rivers are considered as very valuable ecosystems, without relinquishing legitimate water uses that ought to be protected.

Thus, aspects such as biological indicators, fish fauna, riparian vegetation, ecological flows, alien and invasive species, morphology, river continuity, etc. were introduced, to be then expanded upon and improved. All of those aspects were, to a greater or lesser extent and with different success, part of the first planning cycle after the WFD entered into force.

They were better addressed in later planning cycles, although at the time the main problem was the economic crisis that reduced the implementation of many actions.

There has also been a lot of progress — although a lot of work remains to be done — in regard to flood management and anticipation, carrying out important work to define the boundaries of flood prone areas, albeit running into the unresolved issue of prior occupation of flood hazard zones.

With the support of many areas of research, the application of new knowledge and technologies, and with greater and real public participation, with more and more intense exchanges with other countries, and authorities that are open to new ideas, likely we will continue to make good progress, although in some areas there is room for improvement.