January 11, 2010

Spanish Wetland Under Attack From Underground Peat Fire

The Spanish government is hoping to save a dried wetland from an underground peat fire by unleashing floodwaters onto an expanse of the marsh now under threat due to past water mismanagement, The Associated Press reported.

UNESCO recognizes the wetlands of Las Tablas de Daimiel National Park as environmentally valuable because of their importance to both resident and migrating birds.

Waters were diverted over some 93 miles from the Tagus River and began pouring from an underground pipe onto the wildlife sanctuary over the weekend.

"The action was necessary for the good of biodiversity," said Environment Minister Elena Espinosa.

For decades the EU-protected park's wetlands have been drying, and its lagoons now show just 1 percent of the surface water they did in 1981.

Espinosa said much of the damage has been done in recent years, as local farmers sank unauthorized wells to leech water from an underground aquifer maintaining the grasslands, while too much water has also been drawn from the Guadiana River that feeds the park's two main lagoons.

Intense summer heat spontaneously ignited an underground peat fire in August, sending smoke drifting up from the parched landscape that made it too hot for any bird to want to land.

The park is normally a stopping point for Black-necked Grebes, Squaccos and Purple Herons.

Meanwhile, Spain said it would divert 700 million cubic feet of water from the Buendia reservoir, on the Tagus, in order to avoid water loss through evaporation and ground seepage.

The government also cleared the use of the pipeline, which normally carries Tagus water to La Mancha residents.

Jose Maria Barreda, president of the regional government of Castilla-La Mancha, said this spring is going to be spectacular at Las Tablas and that there would be plenty of water and many birds.

So far, no one has been punished for illegally draining water from the park -- some 115 miles south of Madrid. The Environment Ministry said in October it would seek to buy nearby land to halt water being drawn from wells.

"This water comes at a time when heavy rains in the region will help to reduce the water losses," said Fire safety expert Dr. Guillermo Rein, of Edinburgh University.

However, putting out an underground peat fire was not easy, and that the embers could smolder for another few months after the water transfer, according to Rein.

He warned that it had taken three months of flooding to control a similar fire at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina in 2008.


Image Caption: Purple Herons frequent the peatlands of Las Tablas de Daimiel National Park. Courtesy J.M.Garg - Wikipedia