Drought turns one of Spain’s largest lagoons into a salt desert

Each year, Spain’s Fuente de Piedra natural reserve welcomes thousands of pairs of flamingos, but this year, the birds have bypassed the area because there’s no water

Climate change
The dry, salt-covered Fuente Piedra Lagoon in Málaga, Spain, in mid-June 2023.PACO PUENTES

Cristian Rueda stealthily rolls down the window of his SUV. He takes precise aim and, almost silently, fires. He hits the target and smiles. It’s 10 a.m. and this nature photographer has just finished a day that began in the middle of the night. The day’s last photos are of a singing tree sparrow perched on a branch next to the Fuente de Piedra lagoon, located in the north of the province of Málaga in Spain. The photographer reviews the names of some of the birds in the area that he has captured with his Nikon camera, from the great eagle owl to the little stonechat. But there is no trace of the pink flamingo. This nature reserve’s star animal attraction has skipped coming this year because of the drought, which has turned the wetland into a salty desert. “It’s a regular thing,” Rueda says as he contorts his face. It’s so common that today one can barely make out a hundred flamingos in the distance; they have only stopped to rest on their way north. Last year, at this time, there were over 17,000 flamingos raising almost 4,000 chicks.

At six kilometers (3.7 miles) long, this saltwater lagoon is the largest in Andalusia and one of the largest in Spain. It measures about 1,400 hectares and is located a few kilometers from Antequera. The lagoon came to host 20,000 pairs of flamingos; according to the Andalusian government, the Iberian Peninsula’s largest colony of flamingos, and the second largest in Europe, regularly nests there. Now, the lack of rain has left it dry. Data from the Andalusian government indicate that since the current water year began last October, through mid-May, only 220 liters per square meter have fallen in the area, half the usual average. In March of any other year, the birds would have found at least 20 centimeters of water — a sufficient amount for flamingos — and built their nests on a natural island located in the center; this year, there wasn’t even a centimeter of water, so the flamingos have bypassed the area. For that reason, the Department of the Environment has decided to cancel the traditional ringing of hatchlings, an event between July and August that has been held for scientific purposes since 1984. It was also suspended in 2021 due to lack of water and in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A bird carcass in the Fuente Piedra lagoon, which lacks water because of a drought, on May 9.
A bird carcass in the Fuente Piedra lagoon, which lacks water because of a drought, on May 9.PACO PUENTES

Each summer, the lagoon evaporates, but the rainy season normally refills it. However, that was not the case in 2023. “It is not normal for it to be so dry at this time of year,” Eduardo Baca, 63, who has been working in the nature reserve for two years, says as he walks around the wetland’s border; later he enters it to carry out surveillance and maintenance work. A few days ago, it rained a little for several days, but it was not enough to recover the wetland or to attract flamingos, according to the regional government. The low water levels are “the result of several straight years of low rainfall,” as the director and curator of the nature reserve, Africa Lupion, explained. This is the first time in the 21st century that this wetland has run out of water in the spring; it has only previously happened in 1995 and 1997 (records began in the early 1980s). Environmentalists reject the idea that the illegal use of water and nearby aquifers relate to the current situation of this natural area, which hosts about 200 different species of birds.

Just a year ago, a walk along the lagoon meant hearing a symphony of characteristic flamingo sounds, which stood out from the other species in the area. Today, there is mostly silence and a blanket of salt resembling snow inside the nature reserve. The reflection of the sun onto the salt is so bright it hurts the eyes. From the various observatories located around it, the landscape appears to be in pain. Next to the Las Latas lookout, only a few poppies stand out on the clods of earth in which the olive trees grow and ocellated lizards surprise the viewer when quickly crossing the road. There’s no sign of the flamingos; they have made their way to reproduce in other wetlands like Cabo de Gata, in Almería, where there are 500 of these birds. Other species were also unsuccessful in reproducing this year; in 2022, the black-billed Caspians similarly tried and failed.

Eduardo Baca, a security guard and maintenance worker at the lagoon and visitor center.
Eduardo Baca, a security guard and maintenance worker at the lagoon and visitor center. PACO PUENTES

Fewer visitors

The lagoon is the main tourist attraction of Fuente de Piedra, a quiet village of almost 3,000 inhabitants. Beyond the dire environmental situation, the unique bird colony’s absence is also a blow to the economy. “Visits to the visitor center are dropping noticeably. In recent weeks, the temperatures have been higher than usual, which also means that fewer people are coming to hike around the wetlands,” the mayor, Siro Pachón, explains. “The drought is wreaking havoc,” he stresses; the mayor doesn’t rule out any measure or restriction in the coming months. The residents were confident that it would rain in April — in April of 2022, 300 liters of rain fell, staving off problems that summer — but that has not been the case this year. The region remains in a drought this summer. As a result, the olive groves and other crops in the area are suffering as well.

View from one of the lookouts.
View from one of the lookouts.PACO PUENTES

At least Pachón can breathe a little easier, because there’s a new borehole and a small treatment plant to give the area’s people stable access to drinking water. Until last year, everything depended on rainfall, because its traditional aquifer was no longer sufficient. Just in case, the municipality issued a proclamation to prohibit the use of the supply network for filling swimming pools, watering gardens, and washing vehicles. “We are pursuing prevention. Perhaps in the future there will be more enforceable measures or even restrictions, because we do not know how the new aquifers will respond,” the mayor warns. The regional premier of Andalusia, Juan Manuel Moreno Bonilla, said the same thing a few days ago; in addition, he did not rule out taking “painful measures” in September if it doesn’t rain in the area before then. Meanwhile, the flamingos already know that they will no longer spend a few months here.

A group of flamingos in a pond formed by water brought from a treatment plant in the town of Humilladero.
A group of flamingos in a pond formed by water brought from a treatment plant in the town of Humilladero. PACO PUENTES

Environmentalists denounce illegal wells in Antequera

Last February, the Spanish NGO Ecologists in Action denounced the existence of "numerous" illegal wells around Antequera. They believe the wells are being used for water-intensive crops such as asparagus, olives, almonds and vegetables. "We consider this proliferation and lack of control of alleged illegal wells in the region of Antequera — which continues to suffer a structural lack of water that’s not due to lack of rainfall but rather the result of the overexploitation of groundwater and the failure to adjust demand to the resources available — to be quite serious," the environmental organization explained. Recently, the existence of irregular points of water extraction has been the reason for one of the Civil Guard’s most striking operations in the region of Axarquia and the province of Málaga, in which 26 people have been arrested and 44 others have been investigated for the illegal use of water resources.

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