Spain’s Urdaibai biosphere, an EU laboratory to improve drinking water

Urdaibai (Spain), Oct 23 (EFE).- The Urdaibai biosphere reserve in northern Spain is to become an experimental area over the next four years to show that more sustainable forest management can improve the quality and quantity of water for human consumption, within the framework of the European Union’s Life programme for the environment and climate action.

The area is to benefit from the Life Urbaso project (which combines the Basque words “ur” and “baso”, “water” and “forest” in English), for which the Neiker Basque Institute for Agricultural Research and Development, the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), the BC3 Basque Centre for Climate Change, the Busturialdea Water Consortium and Agencia EFE have joined forces.

Urdaibai has been selected as a laboratory because it is “very representative of the Atlantic area of the Basque Country,” as well as being “protected,” Neiker researcher and project coordinator Nahia Gartzia said.

The reserve has a water deficit because, although rainfall is high, the natural resource is not stored and flows into rivers. There are also pine and eucalyptus plantations that consume a large amount of water.

A significant part of its forests consist of a foreign species, the radiata or Monterey pine, originally from California and introduced into the area by a resident from the town of Lekeitio in a deforested Biscay province at the beginning of the 20th century.

The virulence of a pine disease known locally as “la banda” has affected these plantations since 2018 and some owners have opted to replace the species with eucalyptus trees that grow fast and consume a lot of water when they are young and are cut down for timber after they mature.

It turns out that eucalyptus trees are prized for paper pulp, said Ander Arias, head of the Neiker Forestry Science Department, who pointed out that the problem was with the management of the species, as “the amount of water consumed by a young forest is very different to that of an old one.”

The Life Urbaso project, which has a budget of 2.2 million euros, aims to show that a different kind of forest management, with alternative forestry in the area, can improve both the quantity and quality of water at the points where it is collected for human consumption.

To this end, the project coordinator explained that “the three rings of protected areas” are to be created at the four catchment points where the experiment is to be carried out, in which Neiker is to implement a different type of forestry in each one of them.

The first is to be transformed “into a riverside forest with native species and an understory to hold the soil and reduce the amount of sediment” in the water catchment; the second is to have “low-impact forestry to also reduce sediment” and the last ring is to also have low-impact forestry, “but with a little more metallisation”, Arias explained.

The research team plans to draw up a guide so that the conclusions of the experience can be replicated across the Basque Country and Europe.

UPV/EHU expert Ane Zabaleta said “if we change to a type of forest that is less dense in terms of the number of trees and other types of species with a slower growth” with the aim, not of extracting wood, but of maintaining the ecosystem and the quantity and quality of water, “we are going to notice differences.”

The University of the Basque Country is to focus on monitoring the quantity of water and its quality in relation to sediment and soil particles that reach the catchment points.

“When we carry out normal forestry management” and “remove pine and eucalyptus trees to extract wood, the soil is left bare, it rains and the soil particles are transported to the river and reach the water catchment,” Zabaleta explained.

She said “the more soil particles that reach the catchment, the more expensive is the treatment so that the water can be drunk,” so if fewer particles arrive “we save money in purifying the water, which we can invest in other types of improvements.”

For example, it could be used to compensate forest owners who see less economic activity and profits with an eventual shift to more sustainable forest management.

This is what is known as “payments for environmental services” to encourage better management, taking into account nature’s contribution to people’s well-being, with the BC3 centre investigating its viability in the region, researcher Bosco Lliso said.

The specialist said they were going to measure what private landowners would lose by implementing less intensive “or more natural” forest management in exchange for water benefits.

This system has been applied in different countries and in Europe, for example, the distribution of EU funds to farmers to compensate them for implementing “certain practices” on farms can be seen as a payment for environmental services.

The expert stresses that “the important thing is that people are not forced to do anything,” but that landowners can participate in the programme.

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