About 50 civil guards arrived early in the morning in Iniesta (Cuenca) and dispersed the fields in the area. They are not looking for drugs or weapons, or even illegal plantations: they are here to expose the theft of water in an area with an over-exploited aquifer. Those who do not comply use all kinds of strategies: hidden wells, underground diversions, fake meters (with rods or giant magnets) and buried pipes so that it is not known if they are watered. This is a day with the agents of the Nature Protection Service (Seprona) of the Civil Guard who are trying to discover these tricks, between night inspections, satellite photos and forays into the field.
An operation as large and with as many dispatches as happened in August is unusual, but this city of about 4,500 inhabitants – dedicated mainly to agriculture and the headquarters of several transport companies – experienced two in one two. years. In the first, in 2022, Seprona and the Júcar Hydrographic Confederation (CHJ), responsible for the area, estimated that 3.8 million cubic meters were irregularly removed, with damage to the Public Hydraulic Domain of around 460,000 euros. “It’s like 1,144 Olympic swimming pools in a municipality,” said Ángel Francisco Jiménez, head of service at Seprona Research in Cuenca and responsible for both operations, a few days ago. In the second, in August, 1.65 million cubic meters and about 232,000 euros in damage. All this in a context of drought, in an area with an overexploited aquifer-so CHJ does not allow new water extraction points-and in a basin where reservoirs are below average in the last 10 years.
“When we receive information that someone has converted dry land to irrigated land, the first thing we do is look at the land registry, and then we approach to make a inspection trying not to be seen,” Jiménez now points to a gas station. near Iniesta. “Then, we will take aerial photos with a drone or request satellite images of the area—for example, from the Ministry for the Ecological Transition—that will help us see what is planted and see if there is humidity in those seasons that it didn’t. ‘it didn’t rain,” he said, and showed one of the images on his computer, from which he would not leave. “Look, this photo is from August, it hasn’t rained for a month, and you can see that the area is clearly wet: they water without announcing it,” he added.
Now this is a routine inspection for a small farmer. The ground is an endless succession of vines with a leafy tree swimming in the background. They are planted in a row, supported by sticks, and each tree is surrounded by a piece of plastic. “So that the rabbits don’t eat them,” explained farmer José David Garrido. Above the climbing plants, about 75 centimeters high, you can see a black pipe where the drip irrigation runs. Now the ground is wet, because it rained, and Garrido is happy.
The well is a construction shed, with exposed and unplastered concrete blocks, with a window. It is covered by a large installation of solar panels, which help power the pump that draws water from the well. Miguel Ángel Rubio and Alfonso Molero, two Seprona agents, arrived at the facility on their dirt bikes. Next to the well, but outside, there is a small construction – less than a meter high – whose tin roof opens without problems. Inside is a flow meter that records how much water is drawn from the well. Rubio and Molero write down the data and verify that everything is correct: the seal of the CHJ—which prevents it from being damaged—, the operation of the system, and the amount of water used.
“The aquifer has gone down a lot”
“Each well in the area has a permit to extract about 7,000 m³ per year to irrigate about 10 hectares of land. Usually I get about 4,000, the ideal is not to spend it,” said the farmer. He has about 11 hectares of vines, the Syrah variety, which he uses to produce a lot of wine. Each of these installations can cost 50,000 to 100,000 euros, including the solar panels that help move the pump. “I noticed a big difference. When I had to irrigate in recent years I got about 80 m³, but now I don’t even get 60. The aquifer has dropped a lot and the pump is getting sand instead of water,” Garrido added. .
Part of this is due to the lack of rain, but the other is attributed to illegal extraction. “People who don’t follow are always trying to find new ways to use water,” said José Ramón Gallego, head of the Seprona section of Cuenca, in the same field. “For example, they try to hide the irrigation pipes and put underground pipes, which are more expensive, so you can’t see when it’s watering. But there are always leaks and moisture stains to be seen; If we see them in the summer, it is clear that they are watered, and if the pipes are not visible we suspect that they are hiding something. Burying irrigation is more expensive than it looks.
The depravity has also led to the manipulation of authorized wells to extract more water than permitted. “One of the ways is the big magnets, bigger than the hand, which are very powerful and the flow meter cannot be used. When they see the agents of Seprona or CHJ coming, they remove the magnet and it seems that the well is working correctly,” continued Gallego. In these cases, they have to inspect at night. “In one night shift we can inspect 10 to 15 wells. The last time we found the three magnets,” he added.
Miguel Ángel Rubio confirmed this from his motorcycle. “We did the usual checks, sometimes by ourselves, other times because someone informed us of the area: they were planting pistachios there and they didn’t have a permit to irrigate. Let’s check it out.” Each inspection has its keys. “During the day, the solar panels betray them, because there are so many of them. They are often placed next to the wells, even if they are not declared as such. And when we go at night, you can hear the noise of the motor of the pump water,” he continued. All wells must have free access to the meter – or flowmeter -, for Seprona and the CHJ nursery to be accessible. This is also not always fulfilled.
There are many illegalities, such as disabling the meter with a stick (which paralyzes the flow meter) or making an underground diversion, that is, a pipe that goes directly from the well without going through the meter, so that the water can be distributed almost without. remains constant. “Another trick is to build fake wells so that it looks like you are entitled to more irrigation than you are entitled to,” Jiménez said. According to data from the Nature Protection Service (Seprona), in the last five years (since 2019), 4,332 illegal aquifer infrastructures have been found throughout Spain, which not only include wells, but also boreholes and ponds.
The CHJ, which cooperates with Seprona on these issues, points out that the authorization of files directly linked to water increased from 20 per year between 2019-2021 to almost 70 in 2023. “This increase is due to two reason: there were more inspections and it worked well before,” said a CHJ spokesperson. Penalties can reach up to one million euros.
If the case is very serious, a huge operation will be carried out, as last summer the investigator Ángel Francisco Jiménez remembers: “At that time the judge gave us an entry and search order. We left early and sent three agents next to each well, so as not to disturb anyone, while a drone took aerial pictures. We found that it was watered more than allowed. The result was the arrest of three people from the non-compliant company. And he summarizes: “Those who are most harmed by illegal wells are farmers who follow the law.”