Thursday, July 07, 2005

Lagoa dos Salgados

(Pera Marsh)
Lagoa dos Salgados (meaning “salty lake”) is inaptly named since it is one of the few areas of fresh water within the Algarve area. However, the adjective “fresh” must be qualified; during the rainy season the lagoon is fed by a small stream which flows in from the north but this is supplemented by discharge from the local ETAR, a sewage treatment works which is unable to cope with the volume of waste, especially during the tourist season, and is now contaminating the lagoon to such an extent that avian botulism is killing many hundreds of birds annually. A new, higher capacity, ETAR is planned to cope with the increasing number of hotels, houses and apartments being built immediately adjacent to the lagoon but at this time no-one knows what effect this will have; it might result in the release of cleaner water into the lagoon but it might also mean the release of no water at all. The adjacent Salgados Golf course might pose an additional threat. They claim that they are not drawing water from the lagoon for irrigation but this has been challenged by other observers. It is also possible that any run-off from the golf course will add nitrates (derived from fertilizers) and other toxins to the water as has happened near other courses in the Algarve.
In recent years there has been a practice of breaching the natural retaining dam (I.e. bulldozing away the sand-dunes) at the south-east corner of the lagoon to allow the polluted water to escape. This would be commendable if done at the appropriate time but there is evidence that it has recently been done when the water was not seriously polluted or when birds were just about to start breeding. The most recent occurrence was in December 2004 when the water quality was relatively clean, the water level was just about perfect, but apparently the Salgados Golf course requested this draining (carried out by the local council) in order to prevent flooding of their greens. The effect on the birdlife of this very rapid drop in water level is devastating.
Anyone who has visited this site recently (or, like many, is a regular visitor) will realise that the threats to its future existence are immense. Massive development to the east is well under way and there are proposals for even greater development on the western side which could result in building up to the present edge of the lagoon. The lagoon straddles the boundary between two councils or municipalities (Camara Municipal), C.M. Silves and C.M. Albufeira. Both of these municipalities are supportive of any development which will increase tourism and hence jobs within their domains, irrespective of cost to the environment.
There is a fight to preserve Lagoa dos Salgados but it is very much David v Goliath. The site has no national or international protection status; it is not an SPA (Special Protection Area), RAMSAR Site or part of the Nature 2000 network. It is an IBA (Important Bird Area) but this is notional and has no legal status. Portugal is being urged (by the EU) to create more SPA’s but is defiant because such legislation would severely impede tourist development, construction of dams, etc.
SPEA (Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves) is Portugal’s BirdLife International partner working with, and receiving funding from, the RSPB. Compared to the RSPB it has a tiny membership (just over 1,000) and very few staff. In a country with such a rich diversity of habitats and so many environmental and ecological problems it simply cannot cope.
The RSPB has an International Operations Director and also a Country Programmes Officer; the latter has responsibility not just for Portugal but also for Greece and Turkey.
There is a Portuguese Governmental body, the ICN (Instituto da Conservacao da Natureza), which appears to be both impotent and totally uninterested in matters such as this. The present dire state of the Castro Marim Nature Reserve, one of Portugal’s prime RAMSAR Sites which has received a large amount of EU funding for its new Interpretation Centre, bears witness to this.
ALMARGEM (The Association for the Protection of the Environments of the Algarve) is an NGO based in Loule which has a staff member appointed as “caretaker” for the Lagoa dos Salgados IBA; his brief, we believe, is to observe the progress (or otherwise) of events at this site and report back to interested parties.
Over the past few months we have had dialogue with the RSPB and SPEA expressing our concerns over the future of this site. The situation is extremely complex because so many different parties, with different objectives, are involved and in Portugal the administrative and legal machinery moves very slowly and in very mysterious ways. Our concern is that Lagoa dos Salgados seems to be a very low priority in the Portuguese scheme of conservation (a fact admitted by the RSPB). We are not sure whether SPEA and the RSPB realise just how important this site is. It does not have the large area or sheer numbers of birds of, for example, the Ria Formosa or Castro Marim but Lagoa dos Salgados does, square metre for square metre, have an incredible number and variety of birds (over 160 species recorded, including many scarcities and rarities). Moreover, it is very easily accessible to the large number of visiting birdwatchers from overseas many of whom come here year after year. In short, it is a unique gem which the Algarve cannot afford to lose. Hotels can be demolished and replaced with bigger and better ones, but this is not so with this Lagoa; if or when it is lost it will be irretrievable - it cannot be rebuilt and the birds will not return.
So, the purpose of this missive is two-fold: firstly, we have tried to explain and simplify a complex situation; we meet many visitors at this site who want information as to what is happening and ask how they might help. Secondly, we urge you to contact any or all of the organisations involved to let them know the strength of feeling about what is happening at Pera so that they can see the level of concern. Please write, telephone, email or even visit them in person, but please do something - or it may soon be too late.
RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire, SG19 2DL Tel: 01767 680551
Alistair Gammell, Director, International Operations
Mark Day, International Office
Jose Tavares, Country Programmes Officer for Portugal
Professor Ian Newton, Chairman of RSPB Council c/o
SPEA, Rua da Vitoria, 53 - 3.° Esq., 1100-618 Lisboa, PORTUGAL
Ivan Ramirez, IBA Co-ordinator for Portugal
ALMARGEM, Apartado 251, 8100 Loule, PORTUGAL
Joao Ministro, IBA “Caretaker” for Lagoa dos Salgados
Some useful links: * in Portuguese, but has a link to an informative document in English

The officers and employees of these organisations are, inevitably, severely overworked and may not welcome an inundation of letters, emails and telephone calls. This, however, is no excuse for not making your voices heard and opinions known; there will not be a second chance, and time is running out very quickly.
If you are a member of the RSPB you should be aware that part of your subscription is going towards financing BirdLife International partnerships (in this case SPEA), and you have the right to have a say in what is to be done.
If you are a regular or even just an occasional visitor to Portugal and your passion is for the wonderful but ever-diminishing natural environment and its fabulous wealth of resident and migratory birds then please consider supporting SPEA by becoming a member; €22 per year is a very small price to pay to help protect Portugal’s birdlife.

Amigos da Lagoa dos Salgados

“The Friends of Pera Marsh”

The following statement was issued jointly by the RSPB and SPEA

Brief Introduction about the Lagoa IBA

The Lagoa dos Salgados is a well-known coastal lagoon, one of the few wetlands in the western Algarve coast. This site is extremely important for birdlife, including breeding little bittern (4-6 pairs), purple heron (3 to 7 pairs) and ferruginous duck (1-2 pairs, the only breeding site for this species in Portugal), while black-winged stilts and purple gallinule are common (6-10 pairs breeding, up to 85 in winter). In total more than 150 bird species have been seen there. Accordingly, the site as been recognised by SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal) as an Important Bird Area (IBA). However, the lagoa lacks of any legal protection status.
In the last couple of years Lagoa dos Salgados has received a lot of attention in both the Portuguese, the UK and the international press.

Existing Golf Course:

The east side the lagoon is already limited by a golf course, and behind it a massive development (Heredade dos Salgados) is under construction. Contrary to what many people believe, this golf course is not taking it's water from the lagoon. The lake (and incidentally this golf course) receives most of it’s water from a sewage treatment plant upstream - without this plant, the wetland would not exist today as we know it.
West side of the Lagoon
On the west side of the lagoon there is still a vast (> 200 Ha) , idyllic expanse of fields and shrubs, just behind the protected coastal dunes, rich in bird life, particularly migrant and wintering passerines. It is on this greenfield site that a company wants to build a rather big tourism project, comprising 2 hotels, dozens of villas, and a surrounding new golf course. They had bought this land 4 years ago, and are thus seeking to cash on their investment. The planned development totals 10,500 beds – as a comparison, the Silves council has a total of 30,000 inhabitants! This new development would not destroy the lagoon, but would reach right to its edge, and does not plan to include any buffer zone between the open water and the projected golf course.

A planned development threats the site

Plans to build in this pristine site have led to a big outcry in Portugal and elsewhere. Many British birdwatchers, who regularly birdwatch around this site while on holiday in the Algarve, have written to us and to others about the impending threat. Press articles have been written, and regularly we are contacted about this issue.

Our work

During the last 12 months, both SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal) and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) have been very active on the case. Most of this work has involved policy and advocacy actions to try to find a solution that will secure the conservation of all the natural values that make this site so special. Recently SPEA, the RSPB and a local NGO called Almargem have held a series of meetings with all the relevant stakeholders in the Algarve, to get the latest round of information and emphasize SPEA’s and the RSPB’s concerns and position regarding the future of the site. This briefing serves to update and circulate information to all that have expressed in the past some interest about this issue in the past.

Lack of legal protection status

As far as SPEA and the RSPB are concerned, the ideal solution would be to declare and manage the area as a Special Protected Area, under the Birds Directive – the site does not have any dedicated legal protection status now. BirdLife considers that all IBAs qualify as potential SPAs. SPEA has tried to lobby for the protection of this site under the Birds Directive. However, the Portuguese Government has publicly announced they’ve no intention to add new SPAs to the existing network. In Portugal (and elsewhere) SPAs are strongly disliked by mayors, local councils and politicians as they are seen to limit development and progress. Portugal will go through a long and complex electoral period, including three major elections in 2005 and 2006, so there is no political will to take this unpopular measure. We believe this is bad news for nature in Portugal, so we continue to lobby in order to shift this situation.

What do other institutions think about the proposed development?

Silves Council,
They are fully supportive of the new development on the west side of Lagoa dos Salgados. Local council budgets are mostly dependent on taxes levied on construction.
SPEA and RSPB have repeatedly raised their concern on the impacts of the planned development on the biodiversity of the lagoon, and have requested from the developers some flexibility to adapt their project to the ecological needs of the site.
CCDR- Algarve
The main reason why this development is not yet under construction is because the regional land planning agency (CCDR- Algarve) has formally rejected the planned development, not only because there was a problem with an excessive number of beds, but mainly because the new golf course would be below the historical flooding level of the lagoon. CCDR- Algarve has therefore requested the developers to plan the boundaries of the new golf course above this water level, which would reduce considerably the area available for construction, and would secure the survival of important marshland and farmland habitat around the lagoon.
Aguas do Algarve and the new Sewage treatment plant
Another major threat to the site comes from local water politics: the current sewage treatment plant that is feeding the lagoon will soon be substituted by a higher capacity plant already under construction. The current plant does not have capacity and technology to cope with the volume of water needed, and so the water reaching the lagoon is of very poor quality, which often result in severe episodes of botulism that have caused severe bird mortality, particularly in the summer. Also, with the spring rains, the existing golf course is sometimes partly flooded by foul-smelling water, and so for a few years the golf course owners took the initiative to open the lagoon to the sea by themselves. Often they did this in May and June, during the breeding season, with massive impacts on the breeding birds. In the last couple of years this situation was corrected, after many complaints about this state of affairs. The regional land planning agency (CCDR- Algarve) has stepped in and now opens the lagoon to the sea a couple of times every year, during the winter, to mimic a natural process and prevent the accumulation of badly-polluted water in the marsh - a perfectly sensible conservation management action. SPEA and RSPB receive every spring many letters claiming that the marsh is regularly drained - this is not the case!
The main problem is that the original project for the new water treatment plant does not include any structure to send treated water to the lagoon, even though the amount of water to be discharged by the new plant will be much higher – most of it will go to the sea through a submarine outflow, while the nearby golf courses will receive some water after tertiary treatment.
SPEA and the RSPB have met the directors of the company managing all waters in the Algarve (Algarve Waters), and evaluated all possible alternatives. The Environmental Impact Assessment for the new plant is also now starting, will run parallel to it’s construction. Both SPEA and the RSPB will make sure that the needs of the lagoon will be taken in consideration, thus imposing a major change to the original project, and securing that the lagoon will receive the needed water in the future.
Recent meetings with stakeholders
In November 2004 SPEA and RSPB staff have met with all stakeholders (Algarve Waters, Silves Council, CCDR and the developers). It was positive to see that virtually all recognised the ornithological importance of the site, and accepted SPEA’s capacity and position, and all confirmed they would like to see the continuing existence of the Lagoa dos Salgados, including the developers. More importantly, we have also obtained in the latest round of meetings a sincere compromise from the developers to analyse our proposals (see below) and eventually re-formulate their project.
Our next steps
The challenge is to find a compromise solution between differing expectations, since all stakeholders want different things: the Silves council just wants the whole thing to be finally approved, the developers want the lagoon (which they think will add value to their resort) but do not want to reduce the area for construction, the CCDR wants the flooding limit respected, while Aguas do Algarve can send water from the new water treatment plant as far as someone pays for it!
The RSPB and SPEA are now going to do a quick assessment of the biodiversity importance of the immediate surroundings of the lagoon, considering the local hydrological regime. This study will use the vast wealth of information collected so far about the site, as well as the data from a host of competent local Portuguese birdwatchers and scientists that have been studying the lagoon for years. The final report (due by Spring 2005) will be submitted to all stakeholders for consideration.
The future of the Lagoa dos Salgados rest on this complex, intricate and political mire. Both SPEA and the RSPB have got plenty of work ahead, but we hope that the current dialogue will bring a brighter future for the site.
Last, but not least, we would like to thank you again for your support. All the records so far collected about the site (many included in all the letters that British birdwatchers sent in response to the pleas and alerts published in several magazines) have been included in SPEA’s annual assessment of the Portuguese IBAs. Let us assure we are doing all we can on this issue, and please feel free to contact us with any other issues you may have.

Yours Sincerely,

José Pedro Tavares
Country programmes Officer for Portugal, Turkey and Greece
International Division
The Lodge
Bedfordshire SG19 2DL, UK

F. Iván Ramírez
IBAs Programme Coordinator
Rua da Vitória, 53 -3º Esq
1100-618 Lisboa, Portugal


Unknown said...

Golf Course in Algarve it might result in the release of cleaner water into the lagoon but it might also mean the release of no water at all.

Anonymous said...

If we get 40,000 signatures on this petition, we can get the matter raised in Parliament