The image of La Graciosa hardly varies from one summer to another. Hundreds of people disembark every hour from the boats that arrive from Lanzarote, visitors gather on the terraces, the heat sticks to their clothes and the silence is only broken by the sound of the sea. However, within the streets of sand and the white houses that adorn the eighth Canary Island, concern is growing. Is La Graciosa ready to continue growing and receiving tourists? One of the issues that leads residents and regular visitors to ask themselves this question is wastewater management.
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Most houses have cesspools. Matías González, professor at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, explained to this newsroom in 2021 that in La Graciosa “an additional increase in visitors should not be favored before having solutions for the management of wastewater and solid waste” . Through the streets of Graciosa, the remains of an imposing work promised to residents in 2016 can still be seen: a sewage treatment plant.
“They turned the streets upside down, they raised all the sidewalks and now it doesn’t work,” recalls a Canarian who for 20 years has been trying to rest this little Canarian paradise every year. He prefers not to give his name. “Here we all know each other,” he justifies. Although 700 people are registered on the island, every year there are thousands of visitors who move there.
The history of the treatment plant dates back to the last mandate of the Canary Coalition in the regional Executive. On January 27, 2016, Nieves Lady Barreto, the then Minister of Territorial Policy of the Government of the Canary Islands, announced in Lanzarote that her area would allocate three million euros to the construction of a treatment plant in La Graciosa. The objective was to put an end to the “imminent threat” that the domestic wastewater from the Caleta de Sebo nucleus posed for the sebadales of this European marine reserve.
The sebadales are the underwater meadows present in the Archipelago that serve as a refuge and habitat for thousands of species and marine organisms. The sebadales are home to fish such as sea breams, gueldes and old women and along with the sebas live conches, slugs and seahorses, among others.
A work paralyzed in 2018
The Biodiversity Service demanded that the work be declared an emergency due to the significant impact that the wastewater was generating in the sebadales of La Graciosa. According to a document accessed by this newsroom, on March 18, 2016, the emergency procedure was declared for contracting the execution of the work “Treatment plant and sanitation system on the island of La Graciosa”.
On April 4, 2016, the company Canaragua Concesiones SA was awarded the execution of the work for an amount of 2,560,200 euros and the operation of the system for one year from commissioning for 190,000 euros. In 2017, the extension of the emergency was approved and the extension of the works was awarded again to Canaragua for 2,274,648.44 euros, as stated in the document of the Government of the Canary Islands consulted by this newsroom.
This second award was presented as a measure to “alleviate the persistent situation of serious danger posed by the imminent threat of environmental damage to the habitat of community interest of sandbanks permanently covered by shallow seawater.” A habitat that at the same time is protected by the Special Conservation Area of the Natura 2000 Network. The sebadales were being damaged by the blooms of the Cyanobacteria Lyngbya majuscula.
In February 2018 the works were stopped. Sources from the Ministry of Ecological Transition of the current regional government team have explained that the Intervention ordered the stoppage because the work “did not fit into the concept of emergency work because it did not represent a risk to people’s health.”
Last year, the Deputy Minister of Territorial Planning and Ecological Transition, Leopoldo Díaz, assured that the current Government had resumed the project with the aim of completing the purification and sanitation works of La Graciosa, which had to be put out to public tender again with a new file. Then, the deputy minister announced that the administrative process of drafting the project was in the award phase and pending formalization of the contract.
Likewise, Díaz pointed out that the bidding procedure for the works would begin in 2022. From the area directed by José Antonio Valbuena, they point out that “it is being coordinated with the Plan for the Management of the Natural Resources of the Chinijo Archipelago.”
The sebadales are still in danger
Since last year, a team of researchers from the University of La Laguna has developed the project seastore with the aim of conserving and restoring the sebadale meadows in the Canary Islands. The purpose is to fill the gaps that exist in the Archipelago in the conservation of this species that serves as a refuge and sustenance for thousands of species of marine organisms, from microorganisms to sharks.
Despite the importance of these marine forests for the health of Canarian biodiversity, the ULL project warns that their populations are in decline and that at least a third of them have been lost.
In the case of Tenerife, as explained by the graduate in Marine Sciences and marine documentary filmmaker Felipe Ravina, illegal emissaries are the main problem. On that island, 65% of discharges are not authorized. “There is an outfall in Abades, in the south of Tenerife, which goes directly to a sebadal area,” he says. Ravina, who knows the seabed of the islands well, points out that waste such as wipes or paper has also come out of that outfall.
For the scientist, one of the most serious examples of pollution of the ocean by sewage is the case of Güímar. The European Union currently has an open sanctioning file against the Canary Islands for the contamination of the Güímar Valley, which means that Spain is fined ten million euros every six months. This enclave of Tenerife is, according to the spokesman for the Tenerife Association of Friends of Nature (ATAN), Eustaquio Villalba, a “biological desert”. “We didn’t find a limpet, a crab or an octopus.”