The Levante desalination plants, at a third of their capacity

The lack of water has brought Catalonia to an extreme situation. So much so that the central government and the Generalitat have agreed on two emergency measures such as expanding the La Tordera desalination plant by 2028 and building a new one in Foix by 2029. In addition, for the summer, the third vice president of the Government and minister for the Transition Ecology and the Demographic Challenge, Teresa Ribera, plans to take about 40,000 m3 of water daily to Barcelona by boat. coming from the Sagunto desalination plant in Valencia. The fact of carrying water by boat in the 21st century to Barcelona has been questioned, or at least seen with surprise, especially when Spain boasts of being one of the countries in the world with the greatest desalination capacity. We have more than 700 plants that transform seawater and brackish water into a purified resource that is used for human consumption, agricultural and industrial use.

But if the data is also analyzed, it is discovered that a lot of desalination capacity is wasted. The 2022 annual report of Acuamed – a public company that operates part of the Levante desalination plants – indicates that the coastal facilities are operating even at a third of their capacity. The one in Sagunto (in Valencia. It came into operation in 2018) specifically produced 0.2 hm3 of water in 2022 despite having a capacity of 8 hm3. The one in Torrevieja (Alicante), one of the largest in Europe and which mainly serves agriculture, produced 36.4 hm3 of water in 2022, almost half of its capacity (80 hm3). The Oropesa desalination plant (Castellón), with a capacity of 65,000 m3 per day, expandable to 130,000 m3, produced 4.2 hm3 for supply only. Mutxamel in Alicante is almost at the limit of use. In 2022 it produced 6.91 hm3 of the 8 hm it can produce and in Valdelentisco (Murcia) 26.1 hm3 was produced that year when it has a capacity of up to 48 hm3/year. What explains this low production? And if they were used 100%, would the emergency situation experienced in Catalonia or Andalusia have been avoided? Just to remind you, according to the latest data from Miteco, the internal basins of Catalonia are at 15% of their capacity; those of the Guadalquivir at 21.3%; those of Guadalete-Barbate at 14.6%; the Andalusian Mediterranean basin is at 18.3%, and that of the Segura is just above 18%. «This issue of the use of desalination plants always draws attention when it doesn't rain, but the truth is that they are not 100% operational.

If you take the numbers from the INE, in general in Spain, if the installed capacity is about 5,000 cubic hectometers per year, the desalinated water that is being used does not represent more than 18%. Many do not operate at full capacity, because there is no demand. When they were built, that was when the brick crisis began and many urban planning plans disappeared and with them, the demand. The desalination plants remained underused and in 20 years no one has done anything. Even so, it must be clarified that desalination plants have a limited radius of action, of about 25 km,” says Jaime Lora, professor and researcher at the University Institute of Industrial, Radiophysical and Environmental Safety of the Polytechnic University of Valencia.

It is worth remembering that the first desalination plant was installed in Spain in the year 64 in Lanzarote and on the Peninsula it was in Almería in the year 80. «In Almería, Murcia and Alicante, with the drought of the 90s, about 300 units of desalination were installed. private plants for small-scale agriculture (500-5,000 m3/day)”, explains the document “Water Desalination in Spain”, published by the Spanish Association of Desalination and Reuse (AED y R) in 2020. And now we come to the Gordian knot, the “Water” program that was developed between 2004 and 2011 and that aimed to install 25 plants in the Mediterranean basin once the Ebro transfer was rejected. “In 2001, the PP government had approved the Hydrological Plan Law National, whose main axis was the Ebro transfer. But in the spring of 2004, the first decision of the new socialist government was to repeal the transfer, which will require relocating the European funds linked to the transfer and an important part will be allocated to desalination. The Water Plan, worth 2,000 million euros, will be developed in two terms. It is only worth mentioning the rush inherent to the changes because their consequences are still perceived. Not in the design and execution of the plants, but in their sizing (in the years prior to the great recession that began in 2008, demands were overestimated) and in the poor programming of auxiliary infrastructure,” the document explains. Past, present and future of desalination in Spain» published in 2019 in the Water Engineering Magazine and in which Jaime Lora participated.

The current installed capacity, estimated at around 5 million m3 per day, could supply a population of 34 million people, according to data from AED and R. However, one of the causes referred to when talking about lack of demand is the price. Desalinated water is currently around 70 euro cents per m3. « As long as there is a natural resource, no one considers using desalinated water, because it is more expensive. However, natural resources are increasingly scarce and in worse condition. The key to this whole issue is how to consider desalination plants, whether they only serve us in cases of drought or if they are another strategic solution for regular supply. It could even be used like in other places in the world, when there is no demand in the city it can recharge aquifers,” says Jaime Lora. And, for him, the price depends on what you compare it with: “I always talk to my students about the paradox of water, because if you think about it, that bottled water that they bring to class costs a thousand times more.”

Energy consumption is behind the price of desalinated water. However, this one, like the first, has been declining for decades. “Consumption has dropped to 3.8 kWh per m3,” says Julio Barea, geologist and spokesperson for Greenpeace. “To understand it well, if we had a 60W light bulb on for an hour, we would produce 20 liters of desalinated water,” explains Belén Gutiérrez, members of the Board of Directors of AED y R. The truth is that, in addition, the price for desalinating increasingly closer to the purification of surface waters. «Surface water increasingly needs more treatment. The water treatment plants are already at 1 kWh per m3 and continue to rise; Each time the water in the aquifers from which it is extracted is deeper or more contaminants have to be removed. Meanwhile, desalinated water continues to drop in price,” says Lora.

Those consulted for this report are clear that greater planning is needed, because bringing water to Barcelona is not sustainable over time. «A long-term water resources plan is needed that takes into account all options from reuse to desalination. The first thing is to see the needs of each region and the water deficit. Desalination and reuse are safe contributions of water and part of the solution,” comment from AED and R. An important note, reused water, in Spain represents only between a 10 and 11% of the total, «with many variations by region, reaching rates of up to 97% in Murcia. Spain's plan is to raise this average quota to approximately 20%,” explains Siliva Gallego, also a member of the Board of Directors of AED y R.


Minister Ribera has also referred to adjusting consumption to real supply, a point she shares with conservation organizations. «Agricultural systems must be adapted. Right now there are 3,800,000 hectares under irrigation, plus 15% illegal. And this sector consumes 70-80% of fresh water,” says Julio Barea of ​​Greenpeace. However, Isabel Caro-Patón, a lawyer specializing in natural resources law at “Menéndez y Asociados”, believes that it is necessary for the administration to get involved in the offer. «Environmental protection has prevailed over guaranteeing use and that is extremely naive. The lack of foresight in Catalonia has to do with a wrong vision of water rights. Since the approval of the Water Framework Directive, the view has prevailed that it is enough to protect water, and the supply policy has been set aside. “We need more desalination plants, a clear legal regime and financial plans for desalination plants.”