By NATASHA SMITH
Think of the Ria Formosa Nature Park and it evokes visions of nature and beauty, a home to thousands of animal and plant species. So why does part of it look like wasteland?
It seems that sewage was being illegally channeled for many years from the hotel, developments and privately owned houses in Vale do Garrão, between Quinta do Lago and Vale do Lobo, directly into an artificial lake in the conservation area of Ria Formosa.
Locals in the area contacted The Resident with this information, claiming that along with human waste, the lake contained chlorine from swimming pools, metal deposits, oil and paint from construction sites as well as phosphates from washing machines. As far as the residents are aware, no tests on the lake itself have officially been conducted.
Plans for continued construction in the area over the years have been approved by Loulé Câmara, even though the sewage system was old and the pipes were degraded.
The treatment plant in the area was unable to cope with demand, and though it treated some of the area’s waste, excess raw sewage was being channeled directly into the Ria Formosa.
Environmentalists from Ria Formosa have been aware of the problem and, according to residents who spoke to them, have made several attempts to stop the pollution. In 2004 Ria Formosa technicians bio-chemically sprayed the lake as a result of a mosquito infestation due to the stagnant and polluted water.
Residents say they complained about the sewage and the foul stench for many years and have written countless letters to the Comissão de Coordenação e Desenvolvimento Regional do Algarve (CCDRA), the body responsible for the development and protection of the Algarve.
The CCDRA wrote to the Vale do Garrão Residents’ Association to tell them that Águas do Algarve was responsible for the treatment plant but did confirm that technicians had been to the treatment plant and agreed that it was not working correctly. Despite knowing this, they did not launch an inquiry into the matter following the complaints and the Ministry of the Environment finally stepped in to inspect the treatment plant in February 2005.
Inspectors wrote a report detailing the results of the study which found that the sewage plant did not have a licence to discard residual water, which was the responsibility of the CCDRA. The plant did not receive regular maintenance and following an analysis of the water found that it was not being treated correctly.
The amount of sewage being treated exceeded all legal parameters even at a time when the area had a low occupancy rate. The report noted that the treatment plant was unable to cope with the amount of developments in the area.
The Ministry of the Environment ordered Vale do Garrão Urbanização e Construção Lda, the company that controlled the treatment plant, to pay a fine of 30,000 euros and repair the plant. According to local residents no repairs were made for a year-and-a-half until the treatment plant was decommissioned.
In Portugal, in order for a developer to obtain a licence to build, the infrastructure must firstly be put in place, including a sewage treatment plant and it must be maintained until the developer has finished the construction project. The responsibility then falls to the local câmara to maintain the treatment plant.
Águas do Algarve, responsible for water treatment in the region, and the EU cohesion fund have invested 46 million euros into a new sewage system. In June, the treatment plant in Vale do Garrão was decommissioned and sewage from the area was kept in holding tanks at a new pumping station near the decommissioned plant – but this was only a temporary solution.
The Quinta do Lago sewage treatment plant had a larger capacity than it needed and offered Águas do Algarve the opportunity to connect the sewage systems in Vale do Garrão to the treatment plant earlier this year. This was agreed and the waste was pumped to Quinta do Lago, but part of the agreement was to return the treated water to the artificial lake in the Ria Formosa.
It seems this has not been happening as the lake is dry. The birds have flown and the delicate ecosystem of the conservation land has been compromised.
When residents contacted Águas do Algarve, they were informed that the water was not being returned to the lake due to an administrative problem.
The Resident attempted to contact Joaquím Ferreira from Águas do Algarve to discover when the water would be returned to the lake but he was unavailable for comment.
Photographic evidence shows that the channel leading to the lake in the Ria Formosa is completely blocked and no work has been initiated to rectify this.
The lake itself is completely silted up and currently cannot provide a habitat for the extensive birdlife that once thrived there.
The site appears to have been abandoned. The residents claim that no work has been carried out since June to clean up or repair the damage caused to the area.
The head of the Ria Formosa, Nuno Grade, met with the CCDRA on Monday (September 18) and told The Resident that the CCDRA is working on a plan of management to reclaim the lake but wanted to wait until the water dried out. It wanted the residual waste to biodegrade naturally, putting nutrients back into the soil. The Resident contacted the CCDRA to confirm this, but at the time of going to press, no one was available to comment.
The residents have confirmed that a pipe has been constructed from the Quinta do Lago treatment plant to the lake and it is ready to be filled with clean water. For now, the stench of sewage that lingered in the area for many years has gone, but so have the many animals that inhabited the Ria Formosa.