The Mar Menor, a saltwater lagoon on the coast of southeastern Spain, was long recognized for its natural beauty, drawing tourists and retirees to its pristine warm shallows and the area's mild Mediterranean climate.
However, the tranquil lagoon has come under threat over the last few years. Tons of dead fish have been washed ashore as the once-crystalline waters have become choked with algae.
Scientists are divided on whether climate change which causes excessive heat that reduces oxygen levels in water is contributing to the problem. However, they acknowledge that nitrate-filled runoff from nearby fertilizers has ravaged the waters where oysters and seahorses once thrived. Farmers in the area have resisted the temptation to bear the blame.
Hugo Morn, a senior official in the central governments environment ministry, estimated that 80% of the water contamination was caused by the government's unchecked agriculture growth. He also attributed some of the blame to local politicians, accusing them of long-standing efforts to minimize the problem and suggesting unviable solutions, such as channeling a lot of lagoons water into the Mediterranean Sea.
He stated, "This would only create another victim."
To heal, you first have to recognize the illness, he added. At the same time, what we have seen are sporadic assertions from the regional government of Murcia that the Mar Menor is performing better than ever, he added.
Similar problems have recently erupted in other parts of the world. The secretion of a slimy substance dubbed mucilage in Turkey has been accelerated by pollution, particularly from nitrogen-based contaminants, which has clogged the Sea of Marmara in the country. The Berre lagoon in southern France has been damaged by waste generated by a nearby electricity plant and oil refinery.
The Mar Menor, with its fertile fields and a temperate year-round climate, has proved to be incredibly attractive to large-scale farming, which often employ environmentally damaging nitrate fertilizers. The Mar Menor has a narrow, 13-mile stretch of sand known as La Manga, or the Sleeve, which separates it from the Mediterranean, adding to the problems.
Mara Victoria Snchez-Bravo Solla, a retired schoolteacher, has had enough.
When 5 tons of dead fish washed up in August near her home on the lagoon, she decided she was ready to move. She described it as an environmental disaster that should put our politicians and all those who deny responsibility for allowing this to happen to shame.
As the problems have increased, so has the game of blame.
The conservative administration of the Murcia region claims the spanish central government in Madrid, which is a left-wing coalition, should do more to assist. Madrid claims the responsibility lies at the local level.
Miriam Prez, who is responsible for the Mar Menor in the regional government, said she believes political rivalries are preventing the central government from doing more.
Its unfortunate that political hues dont matter, she added.
Despite the region's decision in 2019 to protect the lagoon, she said, the central government had done little to assist her right-wing administration'' cleanup efforts including removing about 7,000 metric tons of biomass mostly decomposing seaweed.
When another wave of dead fish washed up in August, scientists noted that the water temperature had risen dramatically. But the Spanish Institute of Oceanography released a report in September that rejected the claim that excessive summer heat kills fish.
Scientists, on the other hand, blame much of the blame on agriculture. In 1979, a canal was built to carry water from the Tagus the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula - to southeastern Spain. The canal also paved the way for irrigation, which made Murcia one of Europe's top farming hubs, producing lettuce, broccoli, artichokes, melons, and more for export across the continent.
According to a study published last year by the University of Alcal, near Madrid, agriculture accounts for 8.5% of the regions gross domestic product and provides about 47,000 jobs.
The Mar Menor farmers have denied the accusations, arguing that the contamination comes from water entering the lagoon from an aquifer in which toxic substances have accumulated over decades.
Vicente Carrin, president of the local branch of COAG, an agriculture union, said that farmers were now limiting their use of fertilizers to the amount that is needed for plants to grow.
We are being blamed for what happened 40 years ago, he said, when less focus was placed on agricultural practices and authorities' focus on exploiting the demand from across Europe.
Adolfo Garca, the director of Camposeven, an agricultural exporter that harvests about 1,500 acres of land in the area, stated that the majority of farmers have already switched to sustainable production methods. Laggards should get government incentives to invest in green technology rather than stones thrown by people who do not have a basic understanding of our modern irrigation systems, he added.
Even if we did not plant anything in this area for the next 50 years, the aquifer would remain polluted, he added.
Julia Martnez, a biologist and technical director at Fundacin Nueva Cultura del Agua, an institute that specializes in water sustainability, said that the controversies surrounding the lake were merely misunderstandings. She said that at least 75 percent of the lagoon's water contamination came from runoff.
The impact of tourism, which is another significant contributor to the local economy, is also a problem. The Mar Menors hotels and restaurants are located along the sandy beach of La Manga, where dozens of apartment blocks were constructed, many as holiday homes. Almost every inch of the strip is developed.
The Mar Menor had suffered from an open bar approach when it came to granting building permits, according to Morn, the environmental secretary. He blamed most of it on farm fertilizer waste.
Morn stated that his government expects to use 300 million euros, or about $350 million, from the European Unions pandemic recovery fund to restore the Mar Menor natural habitat and waters. The plan also includes replanting vegetation close to shores to prevent contaminated water from entering neighboring fields.
Monitoring the degradation of the lagoon has sounded like a personal tragedy for some scientists.
I remember feeling very stoic as a child that I could see the bare mud at the bottom without even noticing the water because the Mar Menor was so transparent, said Martnez, the biologist.
We now have a sad green soup, and I have long since stopped swimming in it.