Society 11/06/2021

La Ricarda, the natural treasure threatened by the expansion of El Prat

Scientists warn that the space, because of its richness, is irreplaceable

4 min
A plane rises above the La Ricarda estate at Barcelona's El Prat airport

El Prat de LlobregatHectares of thick reed beds, pine forests and lush coastal vegetation that hide a lagoon and extend to touch the sea. The green mosaic of La Ricarda, a protected natural area in the Llobregat delta, survives miraculously well preserved in an enclave where it seems that everything is against it: the pressure of millions of people and road infrastructures, the activity of the port of Barcelona on one side and, on the other, and very close, the airport of El Prat, which now wants to grow again invading its wetland space.

The controversial extension of the third runway proposed by Aena threatens "the total destruction" of the system of plant and animal species that live there permanently or seasonally, such as migratory birds, warns Narcís Prat, professor emeritus of ecology at the UB and expert in aquatic systems. The option put on the table by the airport manager to compensate for the loss of biodiversity, which aims to generate other protected areas in the area, is an unrealistic goal in the eyes of scientists. "All this can not be reproduced, we can do similar things, but not a Ricarda", he insists.

An airplane flies over the lagoon of La Ricarda, on its way out of El Prat airport

"You can't reproduce a living space that is three centuries old. We can create new lagoons, but the mature natural values will not be there", adds Maria José Albaladejo, the manager of the Consortium of the Llobregat Delta. She warns that touching this place, one of the most virgin and consolidated habitats, can be fatal for the whole delta.

Some of the considerations that have been heard in recent days, such as that it is an artificial lagoon or a pond where ducks live, are still brewing among scientists. "Whoever says this is simply ignorant", said Prat. The uniqueness of the place, rich in biodiversity and with some species that are only found here, is based on a balance between fresh water - from rain and groundwater - and salt water that enters from the sea. This means that at the different ends of the lagoon there are totally different species depending on the degree of salinity, describes the ecologist. "This is the grace and complexity of the ecosystem", he adds.

The current boundary of El Prat airport, in Barcelona, with the La Ricarda estate on the right of the image.

"The debate so far has been self-serving and simplistic, and the environmental services of this place are being ignored", says Joan Pino, PhD in biology and director of CREAF. La Ricarda, he claims, has an important role in water regulation (it offers evacuation areas so that in case of major floods the water reaches the sea) but also provides many municipalities with water for domestic consumption, and covid-19 has certified that it is a leisure area for millions of people in the area.

Prat points out that the proposals of the administrations towards La Ricarda would have to go, in fact, in the opposite direction, that is to say, towards increasing a protection that "nobody has taken seriously". This area was already affected by the previous expansion of El Prat, which required environmental compensation that the European Commission has had to claim because they are still pending. Recalling the Catalan ecologist Ramon Margalef, who knew and studied the place, Prat assures that to save La Ricarda it is necessary to guarantee the arrival of fresh water to the lagoon: "A runway has to be always dry and this means keeping the level of the underground water low. This increases the risk of salinization of the wells, because when the groundwater level is low, seawater enters more easily and this can be the end of the system".

The Gomis house, located on the La Ricarda estate, next to Barcelona's El Prat airport.
The Semáforo viewpoint, within the Llobregat Delta Park, on the edge of the La Ricarda estate. The Port of Barcelona can be seen in the background.

In the heart of La Ricarda there is still another hidden treasure, the Casa Gomis, an architectural landmark commissioned by the Bertrand Gomis family to the architect Antoni Bonet, which today has become a benchmark of rationalist architecture in Catalonia. The descendants of the family that still owns the estate today are perplexed by the plans that may also compromise the future of the house, which is uninhabited but open to visitors and experts. The also known as Casa de Vidre, recently declared a cultural asset of national interest by the Generalitat, "cannot be understood without the territory to which it is linked", claims Marita Gomis, one of the co-owners of the estate of La Ricarda. If the extension of the third runway goes ahead, its future is more than dark: "It would be only 300 metres long. If now it is no longer habitable because of the noise of the planes that fly over it every few minutes, then it will also be more inaccessible", he says. The architect Jordi Roig, who is in charge of its conservation, goes even further: "The expansion of El Prat will turn Casa Gomis into a corpse".

Narcís Prat, on the left, and Joan Pino photographed at the pond of La Ricarda, on the edge of El Prat airport, in Barcelona.