Prison sentence and Spanish farmers fined millions for pumping groundwater

Five owners of a farm in a Spanish nature reserve have been sentenced to heavy prison terms for illegally pumping groundwater to irrigate their fields. Similar lawsuits are underway against other landowners.

The five brothers were sentenced to 3.5 years in prison and a fine of 1.9 million euros for illegally pumping 19.4 million cubic meters of water from the Doñana Natural Park in the years between 2008 and 2013.

The water theft has been of such magnitude that the groundwater level of the aquifer has dropped to 15 meters, an expert assigned to the Public Prosecution Service said. “You can compare it with thousands of football fields with one meter of water. It is so much that it is difficult to imagine the volume,” said the expert.

It is the first time that legal proceedings against these types of environmental violations have been conducted in Spain, which has been increasingly affected by heat and drought, especially in recent years.

The five brothers had already been punished with thirteen different procedures and millions of fines in the period from 1997 to 2008, the payment of which they tried to avoid for years. This time the court in Seville decided it was enough and demanded prison sentences.

The extensive Doñana nature reserve in Andalusia is one of Europe's largest swampy natural areas and is a UNESCO world heritage site. The nature reserve is rapidly drying out due to climate change and massive water theft for agriculture. Farmers and gardeners irrigate their crops with water from an underground water basin in Doñana via illegal wells.

The Spanish World Wildlife Fund has identified more than 1,000 illegal wells in recent years.