An Expected Drought Emergency In Northeast Spain Would Mean Tighter Water Restrictions For Barcelona

View of La Baells reservoir, which is only at 21 percent of its capacity, near Berga, north of Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. Barcelona and the surrounding area of Spain's northeast Catalonia are preparing to face tighter water restrictions amid a historic drought that has shrunk reservoirs to record lows. Catalonia has recorded below-average rainfall for 40 consecutive months. Experts say that the drought is driven by climate change and that the entire Mediterranean region is forecast to heat up at a faster rate than many other regions in the coming years. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
View of La Baells reservoir, which is only at 21 percent of its capacity, near Berga, north of Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. Barcelona and the surrounding area of Spain's northeast Catalonia are preparing to face tighter water restrictions amid a historic drought that has shrunk reservoirs to record lows. Catalonia has recorded below-average rainfall for 40 consecutive months. Experts say that the drought is driven by climate change and that the entire Mediterranean region is forecast to heat up at a faster rate than many other regions in the coming years. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona and its surrounding in northeastern Spain’s Catalonia region are preparing for tighter water restrictions amid a historic drought that has shrunk reservoirs to record lows.

Catalan authorities are expected to declare a drought emergency Thursday for an area that is home to 6 million people after water reserves fell below 16% of their capacity, the benchmark set for the application of a new round of water-saving measures.

“Our reserves are below 16%. The situation is critical in Barcelona and around Girona, so we have to take stronger measures,” Catalan government official Laura Vilagrà told Spanish national radio broadcaster RNE on Wednesday.

The emergency would lower the daily amount of water permitted for residential and municipal purposes from 210 to 200 liters per person (55 gallons to 53 gallons). Catalonia’s water agency says the average resident uses 116 liters (30 gallons) per day at home.

Agriculture and industry also would see cuts. The regional emergency declaration would reduce water for crop irrigation by 80%, for herd animals by 50% and by 25% for industry.

The area affected by the emergency covers northern Catalonia up to the French border. The region's less populated southern part is fed by the Ebro River and in better shape. Southern Spain also is experiencing drought conditions.

Catalonia has recorded below-average rainfall for 40 consecutive months. Experts say climate change is driving the drought and that the entire Mediterranean region is expected to warm at a faster rate than many other parts of the world in the coming years.

“Droughts are natural in the Mediterranean climate pattern. What is very dramatic are the projections of climate change. … What we see is an increase in the intensity and frequency of drought,” Annelies Broekman, a specialist in water management at the Barcelona-based CREAF research institute, told The Associated Press.

Broekman noted an important difference between the extraordinarily intense dry period northeastern Spain is experiencing now and Catalonia’s last serious drought in 2008, when boats were used to ship water to Barcelona.

“In 2008, sometimes it rained a little bit in important places, so we had little moments in which all the nature could, let’s say, have a break,” she said. “(This time) we are below, really below, the normal pattern for a continuous period of time. And this is actually what hurts most because we can be quite resistant to periods of drought that have some respite."

Catalonia has faced rolling water restrictions for several months that keep getting tighter as its reserves drops. Prohibitions on watering lawns, filling private swimming pools and washing cars will remain in place. Municipal governments can’t use drinking water to clean streets.

The next steps would keep empty public pools from getting filled, and allow managers of working indoor pools to top up water levels only if they save an equivalent amount through other means, such as shutting off showers.

Catalonia has been able to avoid more draconian restrictions so far largely due to desalination and water regeneration systems that now account for 55% of all water use in the region. Spanish authorities are devoting millions of euros (dollars) to expand or build new desalination plants along coastal areas that are most suffering from the drought.

Both Catalonia and southern Spain's Andalusia region nevertheless are preparing to import water by boat if needed this summer, an expensive options that officials recognize would have a limited impact.