A 135-hectare private estate, which houses a lagoon surrounded by marshes and pine forests, determines the future of Barcelona-El Prat Airport. But not only. The relationship between the Government and the Generalitat, on the one hand, and the debate on policies against climate change, on the other, seem to be linked to their fate today. It’s called La Ricarda. And it is protected for its high environmental value.
AENA and the Government warn that the expansion of El Prat is on hold for at least five years
The expansion of the El Prat Airport has been suspended this week as Aena understands that it does not have the support of the Government to do so. At the center of the conflict is this wetland area, the impact of which to extend the third runway of the airfield has blown up the agreement reached between the central government and the Generalitat. The former assured in numerous meetings that the damage would be minimal and that it would be compensated in nearby areas. And they defend that this is what was agreed at the beginning of August. But the seconds now affirm that La Ricarda cannot be touched.
But what exactly is La Ricarda? And what is its importance for the Delta del Llobregat environment?
This lagoon, like most of those that are distributed by the natural areas that are conserved in the Delta del Llobregat, is an old mouth of the river. Specifically, it is 800 meters long and 100 meters wide, a mixture of fresh and salt water, and is the central axis of one of the two main protected areas of the delta. The other is Remolar-Filipines. Both belong to the Natura 2000 Network, which is why they are protected by European regulation, and one can be found on each side of the El Prat Airport. In the case of La Ricarda, the estate is owned by the Gomis Bertrand family, who acquired it almost a century ago, and which has several properties on it, such as the well-known Casa Gomis.
Not only fauna and flora, but aquifers
The importance of La Ricarda, according to the ecologists who know it best, lies from the outset in the different species of fauna and flora that it houses, which are protected by various regulations and which are in decline in the delta. Of the 17 habitats of community interest that have been registered in the area, three are of priority conservation: the lagoons, the pine forests on dunes and the spiky reed marshes.
In them are specimens of spartina (a kind of reed) or kosteletzkya pentacarps, for example, both protected. Or some birds, such as different species of ardeidae or the plover plover, which almost does not reproduce in the area according to the observations of the NGO Depana. “It has biodiversity of high interest for the conservation of small reserves in a highly humanized territory”, sums up Joan Pino, director of the Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF).
But in parallel to this, the importance of the aquifers of the lagoon also stands out, which act as a water barrier against saline intrusion. That is, they protect against the salinization of the rest of the delta.
With the noise of takeoffs and landings in the background, which take place every few minutes, the biologist Joan Pino makes his own an aeronautical metaphor that suits him perfectly to explain the role that La Ricarda plays in the Delta as a whole. “It’s like taking screws out of an airplane. Each piece that you remove is a species that you extinguish, a fragment of habitat that you lose … There will come a time when you remove a screw and the airplane stops working,” argues the director of CREAF.
Is La Ricarda and its surroundings the ‘screw’ that supports the fragile ecosystem of the Delta? No one can know for sure, but many fear it. “Without a doubt it is an important screw and we have fewer and fewer”, abounds in this ecologist who has worked on different projects around the Delta del Llobregat. If the lagoon is disturbed, warns Pino, it could “compromise” deep freshwater aquifers.
The history of the Delta: nature in retreat
In the XXI century, the Delta del Llobregat is an area of 98 square kilometers in which urbanized areas – large municipalities such as El Prat or Viladecans – coexist, an important agricultural activity, two logistics giants such as the Port of Barcelona and the airport, and finally its protected natural areas. Over time and its adaptation, in addition, the volume of visitors has increased and receives more than 150,000 people annually, given that it is a stone’s throw from the dense metropolitan area of the Catalan capital.
For centuries they were mostly marshes, an inhospitable and uninhabited area. “In the mid-1950s it was already an eminently agricultural area,” explains Pino. The dunes were fixed with pine trees to protect the interior and to be able to cultivate it. This deltaic system, the second in importance in Catalonia after the Ebro, has been constantly altered by human activity, with increasing urban pressure, while it has been subjected to increasingly strict environmental regulations, such as the ZEPA for the protection of birds or the Natura Network itself.
Narcís Prat, Professor of Ecology at the University of Barcelona, gives as an example the latest extensions to the airport and the Port of Barcelona, with the turn of the century, to warn of the consequences that the environment may suffer. It should be remembered that to make the port grow to the south, the river bed was moved more than two kilometers downward. Those actions were made with a compensation commitment that led to the recovery of the Cal Tet lagoon, among other areas. But they stayed halfway, as found by the European Commission, which started an infringement procedure in February that mainly affects the Generalitat – which has environmental powers – for not having complied with the stipulations and having allowed the deterioration of the delta.
By lengthening the main track, Prat points out, it was made over some streams and canals that went to the Ricarda. “Before that, La Ricarda worked with a cycle,” he sums up. It rained, the surrounding water went there, filled up, raised its level and connected with the sea. That happened two or three times a year, whereas now it has been seen four times in 20 years, he observes. And this in turn causes the lagoon to be very eutrophic, with too many nutrients, a “critical” situation that causes there to be many algae and few fish.
For Prat, it is not possible to affect a part of the farm, even if the lagoon itself is not going to be touched, without having environmental consequences. He also considers it “absurd” to try to compensate for these damages with the creation of wetlands and protected areas in other agricultural areas of the park.
Aena promised to multiply by ten the protected areas with which it was going to compensate for the impact of 47 hectares of La Ricarda. Finally, it was reduced by half, as the airport operator understood that it was limited to certain areas. Actions, therefore, of 280 hectares that, according to the Government, would make the protected areas of the Delta grow by 25% in total. But critical voices, led by the Prat City Council, reproached him for the fact that a good part of these new hectares were already provided for in the Delta’s protected areas expansion plan. A project of the Generalitat that is in process but that had been paralyzed for years.