The erosive effect of the ships that ran aground off the coast of Valencia

The difficulty of refloating the vessels is damaging the nearby beaches

One of the ships that ran aground off the coast of Valencia, due to last week's heavy storms.
One of the ships that ran aground off the coast of Valencia, due to last week's heavy storms. CARLES FRANCESC (EL PAÍS)

The unusual sight of two ships, each more than 100 meters long, run aground on the beach across from Dehesa de El Saler, in Valencia, has highlighted the delicate health of this particular stretch of coastline. Besides the environmental damage caused by the tugs working to refloat the vessels following last week's storms, the incident has underscored the ongoing erosion of the beaches south of Valencia city, in particular Dehesa de El Saler, the jewel in the city's crown, located near the natural park of l'Albufera.

The BSLE Sunrise, which was carrying steel pipes and 120 tons of fuel - and whose owner is the Bangkok-based Jutha Maritime Public - and the Celia, loaded with empty containers and 60 tons of fuel (owned by Intership Werwaltungs of Germany) were both anchored across from the port of Valencia, north of El Saler beach, when a storm hit early Saturday morning.

They were not the only ships in the area, but they were the only ones that ran aground, and no official explanation for this has been provided to date. The State Meteorology Agency, following international guidelines, had issued storm alerts in its maritime forecasts. Other ships anchored in the area took heed and headed out to sea to avoid the storm. But the BSLE Sunrise and the Celia did not budge. Vicente Boluda, a ship owner and president of the Boluda Corporación Marítima group, said on Thursday that the engineer officers of both vessels were not on board when the storm hit, which meant that the engines could not be started.

And so both ships ended up on the shore of a beach that has been filling up with onlookers, even as the lifeguard's chair slowly sinks into the water because of the hole made by the ship rescue crew. In the first three days alone, the cost of refloating the vessels has already run over 250,000 euros, according to the Public Works Ministry's rates.

The cost of refloating the vessels has already run over 250,000 euros

Besides the cost and the difficulty of dislodging two such huge ships, the environmental impact to l'Albufera has to be considered. The continuous and irreversible loss of sand at the beach of El Saler has already started to pose a threat to the cordon of dunes in this protected area.

La Dehesa is a sandy strip located between the beach and the natural park of l'Albufera. It is very fragile and erodes very easily. One of the main threats to this ecosystem are the winds, which blow in humidity and sea salt. The cordon of dunes located just behind the beach protects the vegetation that grows beyond. It is the main protection barrier in the natural park, and at the same time the main victim of the beach's gradual disappearance.

Even before the latest expansion of the port of Valencia, various experts had warned that the receding beach-line process would accelerate with the new docks. The predominant currents on the Valencian coast flow south, so that any obstacle in their way creates an accumulation of sediment to the north of it and a loss to the south.

Natural processes deposit sand constantly on the coast, allowing it to regenerate after a storm. But these natural mechanics have been altered by the port, say city planning specialists such as Joan Olmos, a professor at Politécnica University in Valencia, and the environmental consultant Vicent Torres. Both experts agree that every new breakwater added north of El Saler produces an immediate loss of sand there. The phenomenon is not new, as it already caused the disappearance of Natzaret beach, closest to the port.

Natural processes that move the sand have been altered by the port, say experts

Due to all the warnings issued by scientists, the port extension's environmental impact report included the need to monitor the evolution of the nearest beaches north and south of the port until 2015. This took the form of a surveillance plan drafted jointly with the national coastline agency, Dirección General de Costas; the Laboratorio de Puertos y Costas of Politécnica University is in charge of the task.

The latest analysis of the beaches near the port, drawn up in January, indicates that the north area "is evolving as expected; the beach is tilting toward the port," but that the south area, where El Saler and La Dehesa are located, has no observable effects from the construction work that would pose "a risk to stability."

Josep Ramón Medina, director of Laboratorio de Puertos y Costas, says that "a lot of beaches are eroding and showing a variety of problems." According to him, the beached ships "can only affect the beach in the short term" because "the ships and the propellers can move the sand only very locally during refloating operations; the beach will easily go back to its earlier situation," i.e. a few meters' erosion a year.

In any case, coastal authorities say that "in the unlikely event that the beach of El Saler does not recover from the natural action of the sea, an initial amount of 10,000 cubic meters of sand has already been planned for."

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