datadista logo

The great botch

The great botch

The operation of private desalination plants that dumped nitrate-contaminated brine into the Mar Menor was promoted since the 1990s. A public sewer was designed for the spills but left half-built. A list of hundreds of wells and desalination plants sat in a drawer for years. The Civil Guard continues to discover increasingly hidden facilities.

The operation of private desalination plants that dumped nitrate-contaminated brine into the Mar Menor was promoted since the 1990s.The Civil Guard continues to discover increasingly hidden facilities.

By Ana Tudela and Antonio Delgado


Image of the Chandos operation accomplish by the Civil Guard on April 11, 2019 / GUARDIA CIVIL

1990s. Years of drought. Water scarcity extended almost uninterruptedly from 1991 to the end of 1995. Agriculture suffers. The Segura River Basin suffers. Water delivery from the Transfer is at a minimum. The Quaternary aquifer is overflowing but authorizing its use would means desalinating the water, thus creating brine and nitrate-loaded discharges. On October 4th, 1994, the CHS Governing Board decided not to give the issue so much thought and authorized the extraction of brackish groundwater, its desalination and use for irrigation.

Expediente de desalación
Topillo case documentation

In July 1995, the central government, on which the CHS in theory depends, brings order to the approaching chaos and approves a Royal Decree to regulate the desalination installations of sea or brackish water (RD 1327/1995, of July 28th). Basin organisations may authorise these facilities but must also authorise their discharges and do so simultaneously.

There's a problem. In order to obtain authorization for the use of a desalination plant it is necessary to have a license to extract water. But, the Campo de Cartagena is a chaos of unregulated wells. At the CHS, they find a shortcut. On November 9 of that year, it approves the procedures for requesting the opening of drought wells are approved.

For those who do not have a valid license, the authorization of desalination plants will be linked to these temporary wells, which should cease to be used when the end of the water scarcity period is decreed. This won't happen.

The strategy followed is the one recommended by the Chief of Service, a civil engineer, in a document entitled Processing of Desalination Plants.

Tramitación plantas desalinizadoras

“(...) para las aguas salobres, el trámite a efectuar hasta que se apruebe el Plan Hidrológico de la Cuenca del Segura, será el que se establezca para autorizaciones provisionales y deberá tenerse en cuenta que se trata de autorizaciones en precario(...)"

Tramitación plantas desalinizadoras

3) Criterios básicos a considerar:
(...) en general vamos a tramitar autorizaciones provisionales de desalación a particulares, corporaciones locales o comunidades de regantes (...)

(...) las autorizaciones tienen el carácter de temporal y en precario, salvo en aquellos casos también comentados en que ya se dispone del recurso (pozo legalizado o agua marina)

Tramitación plantas desalinizadoras

2) Autorizaciones no ligadas a un recurso preestablecido:
(...) aquellas aguas cuyo recurso provenga de un pozo de sequía existente, o incluso de un pozo con título concesional pero que se quieran extraer mayores volúmenes (...)

(...) la tramitación en estos casos está condicionada a la petición del pozo de sequía en primer lugar, con la documentación y trámites previstos para estos en el acuerdo de la Junta de Gobierno de la CHS de 9 de noviembre de 1995.

Simultáneamente, se estudiará una vez sea viable la autorización del pozo de sequía, la autorización de la planta, la cual sí podrá otorgarse a un particular según el trámite previsto en el apartado anterior.

Tramitación plantas desalinizadoras

3) Vertidos
(...) el trámite será el especificado en la Ley y el Reglamento de Aguas, lo que deberá procurarse es efectuar con un único trámite de autorización, que este comprende desde la obtención del recurso en su caso si no se dispone, la autorización de la planta de desalación y el propio vertido.

(...) quedaría preparar en función del tipo de trámite a efectuar y el tipo de autorización, el contenido de la documentación a presentar por los peticionarios.
Así, la autorización contemplará, en el caso más extenso, la autorización provisional del recurso (pozo sequía), la autorización de la desalación y la autorización del vertido.

(...) podría asistir algún responsable de la Dirección Técnica, a los efectos de que se exponga la viabilidad de verter salmueras en las obras que actualmente se están ejecutando de drenaje, próximas al litoral (...) (...) es necesario adaptar las plantas en construcción o casi construidas (...)

The CHS soon starts receiving applications for "authorization of reverse osmosis plant (the desalination process) and discharge of brines to the collection network". As recommended by the Chief of Service, they choose to grant authorizations "temporarily (...), until the issue is definitively resolved", making it clear that the provisional title "shall never exceed a period of five years from notification". So read the conditions set in one of the resolutions to which DATADISTA has had access. The request expressly states that in the beginning the brine is "to be poured into the Mar Menor".

Solicitud de desaladora
Application for the authorisation of water desalination and discharge into the Mar Menor / Documentation of the preliminary phases in the Topillo case.

To be on the safe side, the CHS clarifies that "authorization does not imply the assumption of responsibilities by the Ministry of Environment (...) in particular those caused by the spillage of the resulting brines". But neither the formula nor the lack of responsibility are sustainable, because authorizations are being granted without the mandatory environmental impact study.

The CHS believes to have found the solution for the discharges, also noted in the report of the Chief of Service, who said that the possibility should be studied of "pouring the brine in the drainage works currently being built near the coast”. .

This is a brine pipeline network, owned by CHS, financed with around 40 million euros of public resources, and whose initial objective was to capture the irrigation returns from the Campo de Cartagena, to prevent nitrates from reaching the Mar Menor.

Also to lower the water table of the Quaternary aquifer, so high that its elevated salt content damages crop roots.

But the most important thing is that this network channels its water to the Mojón desalination plant, a facility built in 1996 by the Ministry of Public Works and Urban Development, with the dual purpose of, as explained by the Official State Gazette: "on the one hand protecting the Mar Menor from the irrigation returns proceeding from the irrigable area of Campo de Cartagena, which have a high nutrient content, leading to eutrophication of the Mar Menor; and, on the other hand, to obtain new water resources for irrigation in the area by reusing water from irrigation returns once treated".

With all the loose ends apparently so well tied up, the CHS then proceeds to grant provisional, five-year permits to 52 private groundwater desalination plants. Of these, 35 were granted between 1995 and 1996, the two years following the approval of the Royal Decree regulating them. The last one was granted in 2007, according to the Office of the Prosecutor. In that period, many others proliferated in the Campo de Cartagena. They are not inexpensive facilities. Some exceed 400,000 euro in investments, without accounting for maintenance. They are not intended for temporary use.

Captaciones vigentes en el Campo de Cartagena
Piping network operated by the Campo de Cartagena Association of Irrigators and decanting channel / CRCC and CHS.

The brine pipeline was quickly insufficient for the discharges of the many private desalination plants being opened. The CHS had ceded management to the Campo de Cartagena Association of Irrigators, but pipes were deteriorated at many points. due to the lack of maintenance.

Five years after authorizing the desalination plants, the CHS starts sending out communications to the irrigators, to inform them that the authorization has expired.

"You must therefore refrain from making any use of this facility from this time onwards, if it is still in service.” If a farm wishes to have a new authorization, it must apply for it and include an Environmental Impact Statement, as demanded by the Regional Environmental Law and the consolidated text of the state Water Law of 2001.

Caducidad de desaladora
Interim authorization of a desalination plant, granted by the CHS / Documentation of the preliminary phases in the Topillo case.

Vis-à-vis the discharge problem, the CHS neither renewed those temporary authorisations nor granted new ones. Illegality took over yet another aspect of irrigation in the area. The rule for years was, again, to let the irrigators do. One water commissioner declared that up to 900 desalination plants could be operating in the Campo de Cartagena.

Timelapse del Mar Menor entre enero y septiembre de 2019
Timelapse showing the Mar Menor between January and September 2019. Continuous floods can be observed at the mouth of the Albujón creek. / Copernicus - Sentinel Hub

There are three relevant documents cited by the prosecutor in his complaint in the Topillo case. One is a communication of the Government of Murcia to the CHS , at the beginning of September 2004, precisely at the time when farmers are receiving the notification that their provisional authorisations for desalination plants will expire. The Government of Murcia asks for information on existing authorisations, brine pipelines, discharges into the sea and into creeks and "asks to study the possibility that the discharges of brine into the Mar Menor be eliminated by taking them back to the Mediterranean or wherever".

At the end of that same month, the Director General for Environmental Quality at the Government of the Region of Murcia, Antonio Alvarado, writes to the president of the CHS, Salvador Fuentes Zorita, warning that the discharges of the Mojón desalination plant into to the Mar Menor are unauthorized. In October, Alvarado asks Zorita for a report on the discharges because they "directly affect the Mar Menor". Apparently there was no response. .

Plastic waste from agricultural activities at the mouth of Albujón creek in January 2017. / DATADISTA

According to the prosecutor‘s letter, "in this chaotic situation, no one does anything, nor does anyone take measures on the already alarming uncontrolled brine spills that are reaching the Mar Menor with the knowledge and consent of the CHS and the regional Ministry. When there is torrential rainfall, as occurred in early 2017, the Albujón creek becomes a river that drags fertilizer nitrates and the nitrate-polluted Quaternary aquifer overflows. Even if there is a minimum amount of water in the creek reaching the Mar Menor, a constant flow is always maintained. The proof of its origin lies in the plastic irrigation piping stranded along its path.

Central governments have left track of the extent to which they knew about the problem that was being created. The 2005 National Hydrological Plan, in its effort to seek formulas to compensate irrigators for cancelling the frustrated Ebro Transfer (which was included in the 2001 National Plan, approved under the People’s Party), included the expansion of the Mojón desalination plant, so that a greater volume of water than that collected from irrigation return and aquifer springs could be made available for irrigation.

"There was a network of brine pipelines in the Campo de Cartagena, owned by the CHS. The purpose was to lower the water table, so that crops themselves were not affected and to discharge beyond the Mar Menor, and when the problem happened, there was an important social alarm and the Autonomous Community gave instructions to close off that brine pipeline. By closing the brine pipeline, those wells no longer had an evacuation channel for their discharge.”

Mario Urrea, president of the Confederación Hidrográfica del Segura.

The infrastructure was never finished. Although the resolutions taken by the CHS at the end of 2005, ten years before the waters of the Mar Menor became green, already warned of the need to "effectively eliminate the discharge of irrigation returns into the Mar Menor"; and although the environmental impact statement was even made and information on the works was brought out to the public, the works were never carried out.

They reappeared briefly in the 2010 State Budget, which included the "Declaration of General Interest for the works to eliminate brine proceeding from the Campo de Cartagena desalination plant network and its discharges to the Mediterranean Sea", but that was all.

The same administration that had pushed for this irrigation solution abandoned the plan halfway through. Discharges were dumped freely into creeks or poured into the too small brine conduct. In one way or another, nitrate concentrate ended up filtering back into the Quaternary aquifer, already highly polluted and connected to the lagoon, or it was channelled directly into the Mar Menor.

Number of sanctioning processes for unauthorized water desalination, disregard and non-compliance. It was not until 2014 that the CHS began to sanction on these grounds. | Source: Segura Hydrographic Confederation

What was done with the desalination plants, knowing they were illegal? DATADISTA has analysed all sanction cases initiated by CHS between January 1, 2007 and June 30, 2019.

Until 2014, the Confederación Hidrográfica del Segura did not process any sanctions on the grounds of unauthorized groundwater desalination.

This administrative violation of the Water Law imposes sanctions on those responsible for unauthorized discharges that may deteriorate water quality.

From 2014 and until June 30, 2019, the CHS opened 51 disciplinary cases for unauthorized desalination of water, disregard or non-compliance. Only 21 were sanctioned with a fine of between 1,000 and 10,000 euros, being 1,000 euros the most frequent amount. In most cases the violation was considered a minor misconduct.

Like every time that chaos took over the Campo de Cartagena, this time there was also an attempt to regularize the illegal infrastructure that had been left to operate for years without any license or with expired ones. It was in 2009. On April 22nd of that year, CHS hired SETECO to prepare an inventory of all desalination plants and wells in Torre Pacheco, the area in the Campo de Cartagena where these had multiplied.

Seeing the possibility of having their water extraction and desalination formalized, the farmers, through the COAG association, assisted in the preparation of the inventory.

COAG personnel went on the ground with a GPS, collecting the coordinates of wells and machines. They also provided a detailed list, a water treasure map for what had been extending for years underground. The figures they delivered were overwhelming: 472 wells and 157 desalination plants. In CHS internal emails which are part of the files of the Topillo case, it is acknowledged that "all the support received from small irrigators to make this inventory (...) has been because they trusted that we were working with them to solve the problem.” For this reason, they believe that "it would not be good to disseminate this inventory, which has taken so much work to obtain and which they have so confidently provided to us".

There were no files, the inventory had been made with the aim of legalizing, has said Francisco Turrión, hydrogeologist of the CHS. Legalized did not happen either. It was complicated, considering that the desalination plants were often linked to drought wells that were being used outside the authorized period or were even illegal. According to Turrión, "the desalination plants were unauthorized but still operating.” Producing their brine and nitrate discharge that flowed into the Mar Menor through the Albujón creek or into aquifers.

According to what his declarations in the Topillo case, when José Carlos González was appointed water commissioner in 2012, he heard two channel monitoring agents talking about illegal wells and the existence of a list that had been in the hands of the Hydrographic Confederation for years. In it, along with about 400 wells and their coordinates, their association to a desalination was detailed. It was that same Excel table prepared by SETECO with the cooperation of the farmers for the CHS. Gonzalez asked for the list.

According to the several witnesses’ statements, in the first half of 2013, a raid of inspections was organized. Environmental guards from other areas were even brought to the Torre Pacheco area.

They want to do it fast. Environmental agents and guards are assigned a number of facilities to be checked, with the coordinates that appear in the inventory. Environmental agents called before examining magistrate number 2 as witnesses admit that without that list, they would not have been able to locate the facilities. "The desalination plants in the Campo de Cartagena were hidden. They were very difficult to locate”.

Agents ask where the spills are discharged. Still convinced that this investigation will formalize their situation, the farmers acknowledge that the spills are channelled to the sewage network, to the Albujón creek, to the Mar Menor. No wells are sealed. It is noted on a sheet if the well has a desalination plant, if it is in operation. Well seals do not begin until after the summer of 2015. And discharges continue reaching the Mar Menor.

When the lagoon turned green in the spring of 2016, public officials panicked. Within a month, the Water Director General ordered the CHS to shut down the public brine pipeline network.

It wasn't easy. Due to the irrigators’ belligerent attitude, riot police had to be sent to proceed to the sealing. Where were they going to get water?

In the first quarter of 2017, the Civil Guard’s Nature Protection Service (Seprona) began visiting farms, following orders of the Environment Prosecutor José Luis Díaz Manzanera. The investigation that would end in a complaint by the Public Prosecutor's Office was underway to become the Topillo case.

The farms owned by G'S group, a British irrigation multinational, were visited in February. It was found that their two desalination plants expelled brine with nitrates into the brine pipeline and from there went into the Albujón creek. It is estimated that, between 2012 and 2016, the discharge to the Mar Menor was equivalent to 316 Olympic swimming pools. Inagrup, 64 swimming pools. Ciky Oro, 555 swimming pools. Vanda Agropecuaria, 246 swimming pools. These companies end up being charged in the Topillo case. Where is the rest of them going to extract water so that they don’t also end up being charged?

At 5.45 a.m. on July 1st 2017, the Civil Guard observed a mobile desalination plant being unloaded from a vehicle owned by Insal Electricidad y Automatismos, S.L. On another site, a desalination plant inside a container installed by the same company. In another inspection, another machine, same installation company. Faced with the obvious fact that someone was making profit by devising ways to avoid the Civil Guard, they entered the company's offices and took a large amount of documentation with them. There they were. Names, clients, addresses, installed equipment. The documentation would lead to the Chandos operation, but it also showed a hidden business in the intensive irrigation of the Campo de Cartagena.

"The sophistication of the facilities has surprised us. (...) Some of them even had a tractor inside so that no cables could be seen from the outside and the tractor was producing the electrical current necessary for the machinery to work".

José Antonio Fernández, Seprona head of section in the Region of Murcia.

In April 2019, Seprona relaunched a macroperation called Operation Chandos, with about 100 troops and helicopter support. They were in search of desalination plants and illegal wells on the farms appearing in the documentation seized.

Even knowing where they were going, they found it difficult to locate the plants. The degree of sophistication of the facilities surprised the Civil Guard, used to associating complex concealment practices more with drug trafficking than with environmental issues. From vehicle-installed desalination plants to large underground installations hidden by mobile ramps, to a plant that was powered by the battery of a buried tractor to hide any hints that external electrical cables could provide.

The Drought Well Trap
Captaciones vigentes en el Campo de Cartagena
Situation of drought wells closed by the CHS in 2015 on the Pliocene, Andaluciense and Quaternary aquifers of the Campo de Cartagena / CAMPO DE CARTAGENA ASSOCIATION OF IRRIGATORS AND CHS

Practices in the Campo de Cartagena and their relation with the arrival (or not) of water from the Transfer can be summarized in a sentence found in a document made by the irrigators themselves: in it, the CHS is asked to permit the reuse of 219 wells (215 located in the Campo de Cartagena and capable of extracting 24 hm³ a year) "initially constructed as drought wells but which," it is acknowledged, "continued to operate after its ending, especially in periods when the flows of the Tagus-Segura Transfer were lower than normal, even in periods when there was no formal drought situation. These wells (opened in the late nineties) were closed by the CHS in 2015 (that is, fifteen years later and precisely with José Carlos González as water commissioner) until the appropriate environmental assessment was carried out".

The reopening of these 219 wells was requested, along with 13 wells that were drilled but not in use and 20 future wells. A total of 252 wells with a maximum requested extraction of 28.6 hm³/year. 94 wells extracting water from the Quaternary aquifer (8 hm³), i.e. from the highly saline and nitrate-polluted aquifer; 117 wells from the Pliocene (13 hm³), an aquifer which has been overexploited for decades; 37 wells from the Andaluciense (6.5 hm³); 3 wells from the overexploited Triassic aquifer (0.3hm³); and one in Cabo Roig (in Alicante) (0.5 hm³). It is even acknowledged that some of these wells are outside the irrigable area, even if the water is used inside.

The argument for requesting the reopening of these wells and the construction of new ones is that, "given the irregularity in the contributions of the Tagus-Segura Transfer", the use of the wells "would allow the demand legally recognised by the Hydrological Plan to be maintained". If this use is not allowed, "there will be progressive and foreseeably significant economic losses, which would imply a reduction in employment and the resultant social unrest due to the lack of response in minimizing the impacts of drought.”

In November 2018, the re-opening of 164 wells was authorized, of which 131 were put into operation. to extract a maximum volume of 8.73 hm³ per year and irrigate an area of 2,773 hectares. According to the CHS, the remaining 33 wells authorized are not in operation due to various causes, such as that their commencement of operations has not been communicated or the wells are not actually yet installed (19 wells), because they are authorized under a different license (9 wells) or have a sealing order (5 wells).

‹‹ Secrets of the polluted aquifer | The irrigation machine ››