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Nicklaus Golf Courses Keep Green Drinking Spanish Farms' Water
07 November 2008 @ 09:30

After tilling corn for 20 years on the banks of the Tagus River in central Spain, he didn't plant this spring. Piriz instead sold his water to arid towns in the south for 216,000 euros ($275,000), more than he would have earned on the crop.

``This is a great harvest for farmers,'' the 43-year-old said after plowing under 150 acres. He's one of 200 farmers in Aranjuez, 30 miles south of Madrid, who were paid to shut irrigation canals from the Tagus. This year they let their water meander south through 250 miles of rivers and pipelines to the buyer, a utility supplying 43 towns in parched Murcia.

Demand for water on Spain's southern Mediterranean coast has become so intense that the Murcia region, home to more than 17 golf courses and a resort boom, has begun importing billions of gallons from farmers up north. That helps keep local taps running, swimming pools full and the grass green at three Jack Nicklaus-designed courses owned by Polaris World.

Deals like Piriz's, which required approval from regional water boards and even the nation's cabinet, are set to become far easier. Spain plans to strip control from local authorities over 9.25 trillion gallons of annual water flow and hand it to a new market by 2012. The government will create 10 water banks to let rights holders including farmers sell to the highest bidder.

`The Next Petroleum'

``This is just the start, and the whole world is going to be watching Spain's experiment,'' said Deane M. Dray, a New York-based water analyst for Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and adviser to the United Nations on water issues. Dray says the life-sustaining resource will become the ``petroleum for the next century'' as demand overshoots supplies.

Governments around the globe are seeking drastic solutions to satisfy increasingly thirsty users. Australia will spend the equivalent of $2.1 billion this year buying back water from the Murray-Darling Basin to return it to stressed wetlands and rivers. Cyprus and Barcelona are importing water in tankers and building desalination plants to make sea water drinkable.

Southern Californian farmers have fallowed land to sell their water to cities amid a drought and diminishing flows from the Colorado River. Around the world, water consumption will double in the next 20 years, twice the rate of global population growth, a Goldman Sachs report predicted in March.

In Spain, the shift in power toward resorts and homes threatens to reduce crop harvests and undercut the country's position as Europe's second-biggest producer of fruit and vegetables after France. Farms, with rights to consume 68 percent of Spain's water, are being approached to bail out the arid south, which suffered its driest eight months on record through May, officials say.

`All About Money'

``It's all about money,'' Aranjuez environmental chief Olga Rincon said from her office by the town's main square. ``Water that once nourished our land was sold to the south just to keep their unsustainable economies of golf courses and resorts going. It's plainly irresponsible.''

Land that had grown corn and wheat is now idle around Aranjuez, the town where Spanish King Felipe II built his 16th century spring retreat to escape the dry heat of Madrid. Farmers including Piriz sold 9.7 billion gallons of this year's supply for 11 million euros to the Murcian water provider Mancomunidad de Taibilla. That was 36 times what they paid for the water.

The deal helps cut a supply deficit in Murcia that widened in 2008 to its highest in more than 75 years. A sub-economy of golf courses and water-intensive farms that grow melons and oranges has added to the squeeze in Murcia, which averages about 12 inches of annual rainfall.

One-Strip Airport

The economy in Murcia, an 85-mile-wide area with its own regional government, doubled in size over the last eight years. It was boosted by a construction and real estate boom that drew golf fans and sun-seekers from northern Europe.

On the road between Murcia's regional capital and its one- runway airport, rows of white holiday apartments are being built for a growing expatriate community that can fly in and play at the nearby La Torre Golf Resort or two other Jack Nicklaus- designed golf courses within a short drive.

The Segura basin, which provides Murcia's water supplies, is the nation's driest. Patches of land teeter on being classified as desert. Strips outside the boundaries of resorts, homes or farm-irrigation zones lie cracked and caked with dust. Segura's reservoirs and storage facilities are the driest of Spain's 10 water districts.

``Demand just far outstrips supply down here,'' said Mario Andres Urrea, head of planning at the Segura water agency that oversees the area's needs. ``But we're very proud of the fact that so far we haven't had to impose any water restrictions on the people living around here.''

Building Boom

In the last decade the region tripled the number of permits granted for new homes and golf apartments. Local authorities plan to allow residential water use to expand by a fifth over the next two decades. Many golf courses use water recycled from the holiday homes built on their perimeter.

The construction boom has helped drive water demand to more than twice the region's own resources. Murcia largely relies on a 180-mile pipeline that transports 143 billion gallons of water a year from Castile-Leon, angering citizens from that northern region. That supply is capped, so extra demand in the future must be met by buying water elsewhere.

Spain's water shortage may worsen. The environment ministry predicted that global warming may push up average temperatures in the Mediterranean country by 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050, reducing rainfall by 10 percent, depriving rivers, reservoirs and aquifers. During that period demand will increase, regional water agencies forecast.

Squeezing Water

The national government's planned public water banks will be used to ``reassign historic water fairly, efficiently and with sustainability,'' according to the official Water Plan on the ministry's Web site. Hinting that rates will rise, the program promotes an active water market to make the price better reflect ``the true cost of obtaining and treating'' water.

Also planned are more desalination plants, better infrastructure and conservation campaigns.

``I understand the government's situation,'' Aranjuez's Rincon said. ``They need to ensure that everyone gets their fair share of water. But this just makes a business out of the water shortage. Farmers are just going to continue selling their water as long as the price is high enough to justify it.''

Imports to Murcia aren't enough to keep even local farmers flush with water. Antonio Fernandez, who grows peaches and apricots around Yachar, in the north of Murcia, said from a group of 10 farmer friends that only three remain in business.

Tearing up Plums

It is mid-afternoon and time to turn off the tap that keeps his field alive. After three hours of watering land, Fernandez has used up his daily allowance for fruit that normally would need at least six hours of water a day.

``My water bills have doubled,'' he said from beneath a hat that keeps out the midday sun. ``The choice is clear: You either pay these prices or you stop watering your crops.'' After eight months without a drop of rain between October and May, he tore up half his seven-acre farm of oranges and plums to ensure enough water for the remaining crops.

Agriculture in the region expanded rapidly under dictator Francisco Franco, who saw the potential for harnessing the 2,800 hours of sunshine Murcia receives a year on average. Franco was nicknamed Paco Piscinas, or Frankie Swimming Pools, for all the reservoirs he built for the industry. Today, they're not enough.

The Murcian water agency has reduced supplies to farmers like Fernandez to keep residential levels unchanged. That spurred him to look north and offer twice what he was currently paying to import water.

``They cut our allowances down in dry periods and everyone else -- homeowners, hoteliers, golf courses -- is allowed to carry on normally,'' he said. ``It's much easier to bully the farmer, but if this continues there'll be nothing left of us.''  Source: bloomberg

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