Pesticides contaminate water of 25 villages in Lleida

The effect on drinking water forces the local councils to give out water bottles among the neighbours or to use wells

3 min
A lady buying water at the supermarkets of Espluga Calva

L'Espluga CalbaThe crisis which villages part of the Mancomunitat d'Aigües de Les Garrigues are suffering is becoming endemic. For the second time in a month, the 25 towns that drink from this network, spread between the regions of Segrià and Les Garrigues, will be unable to drink tap water due to the high level of pesticides. The drought and agricultural activity are causing repeated incidents that affect drinking water, the latest of which started last Friday and is affecting these small villages, all below a thousand inhabitants.

The Mancomunitat, since its creation in 1987, uses the Utxesa reservoir to supply drinking water. In fact, it is currently the only body that takes water for human consumption from this artificial lake. The water from Utxesa, in the Segrià, is mostly used for agricultural irrigation and to generate electricity, and has recently been showing high levels of pollution. The surface area of the reservoir is 242 hectares, with a perimeter of almost 20 kilometres, but its capacity has been reduced to less than half (4 cubic hectometres at present) due to the sedimentation of mud and the growth of vegetation, basically reeds.

All this explains, to a large extent, that the rate of herbicides that farmers use in fields in the area is increasing in the water, a fact that can only be alleviated by stopping the supply, applying carboactives at the treatment plant (located in Sarroca de Lleida) and waiting a few days for the analytical tests to give better results. In fact, last week it was found that there are up to 0.4 micrograms of metolachlor, a very common pesticide among farmers to eliminate weeds, per litre of water from the Utxesa reservoir. The maximum allowed for human consumption is 0.1.

But apart from herbicides, Utxesa is historically exposed to other incidents. The last one was last year, when a major hydrocarbon spill was detected, which also forced the supply to stop for days.

A woman carrying water in L'Espluga Calba.

"We are tired of these problems recurring so often that we are forced to take measures which should not be for us to take," explains the mayor of Bovera, Òscar Acero, who last Friday took on the determination to distribute free water bottles to his little more than 250 neighbours. Initiatives like this have also had to be taken in other places, such as L'Espluga Calba and La Granadella, where the council has taken bottled water to the nursing home and to elderly residents' homes.

Pending structural solutions

Later today there will be a new meeting between the director of l'Agència Catalana de l'Aigua (ACA), Samuel Reyes, and the president of the Mancomunitat, Francesc Esquerda, to analyse the situation and discuss possible assistance measures should the situation happen which, among which the purchase of more carboactives to control the rate of pesticides and the financing of tanker trucks to fill the municipal tanks in case the service stops again stand out.

The mayors of the Mancomunitat, however, have been calling for more far-reaching measures for years. The mayor of La Floresta and former president of the supramunicipal body, Jaume Setó, assures that "the only solution to all our problems is to connect us to the L'Albagés reservoir, whose water is much safer" and which would substantially reduce pumping costs. This project is not valued economically and its execution is not even considered by the ACA in the medium term. In any case, the president of the Mancomunitat, Francesc Esquerda, has made repeated calls to ask for aid from the European Union, through the Next Generation program, to execute it "as soon as possible".

Other mayors are calling for the green light to use their own resources. The mayor of L'Albagés, Víctor Masip, explains that he is waiting for the ACA and Health to endorse the consumption of water from two wells that would give complete autonomy to the town, with under 400 inhabitants. Others, such as Vinaixa and La Pobla de Cérvoles, go to their own wells when the Mancomunitat cuts off its water supply, but bans using it to fill swimming pools or watering gardens. "Our resources are limited and we ask for rational consumption", indicate sources from the City Council of Vinaixa.

The combined population of all 25 villages which are part of the Mancomunitat is under 10,000 inhabitants, and local councils feel abandoned by the administration. "If this happened in a single neighbourhood in Barcelona, the problem would have been solved in a few hours," laments Òscar Acero.