Chapter 8. Enforcement and budget challenges for groundwater reallocation in the Upper Guadiana Basin, Spain1

This chapter summarises efforts by Spanish authorities to slow groundwater depletion in the Upper Guadiana Basin. The case study discusses the policies and legal changes put into place to shift groundwater from private property to a resource managed under the public domain as well as efforts to reallocate water to higher value uses, including the environment.


Groundwater depletion spurred socio-economic development, with negative environmental impacts

The Upper Guadiana Basin2 in Spain has been subject to intensive groundwater use for agriculture irrigation for several decades. The intensive groundwater withdrawal in the basin was due to a great extent to a regional policy originating in the 1970s providing local farmers with subsidies to pump groundwater to irrigate drylands in the area. Irrigated agriculture spurred remarkable socio-economic development in the region, although the policy led to a fourfold increase in abstraction during the 1970s and 80s, largely exceeding the recharge of the groundwater resource. This resulted in a drop in the water table of between 20 and 30 meters, and as much as 50 meters in some places with negative implications for the natural environment (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2016; López-Gunn et al., 2011).

Because of the proximity and connection of groundwater and surface water resources in the Upper Guadiana Basin, the drop in groundwater levels negatively affected several wetlands in the basin. This included the Tablas de Daimiel National Park,3 which used to be regarded as a landmark and was included in the national Ramsar list (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014). Its natural springs and wetlands provided the surrounding population with an ecosystem that allowed it to sustain itself in terms of fisheries, crabbing and orchards. During the 1980s, the flooded surface area of Tablas de Daimiel saw a decline from 6 000 Ha to less than 1 000 Ha (Global Water Partnership, n.d.). Only 20% of the original wetland areas in the national park remained in 2010 (López-Gunn et al., 2011).

Early efforts to stem groundwater depletion

With the introduction of the 1985 Water Act, groundwater was brought under the public domain and a system of entitlements with abstraction limits was introduced (Box 8.1). In the Upper Guadiana Basin, the number of groundwater users who registered their wells under the grandfathering provision of the Water Act by far exceeded the available renewable resources (MoA, 2016).4 This contributed to the observed continued decline of the groundwater table.

Box 8.1. From private ownership to public domain: Key elements of Spain’s 1985 Water Act

The groundwater allocation regime in Spain has evolved over time from a system of private groundwater ownership to one of increasing control by the State to limit overall abstraction and manage groundwater entitlements. For over a century (from 1879 to 1985), Spanish law defined groundwater ownership as private property and recognised the right of land owners to abstract unlimited amounts of groundwater; in other words, the rule of capture applied (MoA, 2016; Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014). In 1985, the Water Act was adopted, which declared groundwater to be in the public domain and introduced a system of groundwater entitlements. Entitlements are valid for a maximum of 75 years, mainly granted to individuals and are temporarily transferrable in special drought situations (OECD, 2015a). In cases where an aquifer has been declared as “over-exploited” (see discussion of the term “over-exploited” in Chapter 1, Box 1.1) or at risk of not achieving good status, all users are required to organise themselves into groundwater user associations (Shah, 2014; MoA, 2016). There are no abstraction charges for groundwater in Spain (OECD, 2015b).

The 1985 act had a grandfathering provision, which allowed for groundwater users who already possessed and operated wells at the time the law was enacted to continue abstracting water under the same conditions (e.g. diameter and depth of the well, pumps conditions, etc.) as before as long as they registered their wells. When registering their wells, users were assigned a maximum abstractable volume, which varied by region and also by irrigated crop type. Entitlement holders could then decide whether they wanted 1) to continue with no temporal limit, keeping exploitation conditions unchanged, or 2) in the case where they wanted to change some of the exploitation conditions, they could transform their entitlement into a time-bound entitlement valid until 2035 when it would be turned into a time-bound entitlement (concesión) aligned with the 1985 law. (MoA, 2016; Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2016).

The 1985 Water Act also allowed for authorities to declare depleted aquifers as over-exploited (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014). It addition, the act renewed the status of the River Basin Management Agencies (Confederaciones Hidrográficas), first introduced in 1927, which are in charge of water resource planning and development, issuing groundwater entitlements and monitoring water quality and quantity (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2016).

The abstractable volume was set to different levels in different regions; in the Upper Guadiana Basin, it was set to 4 278 m3/ha for herbaceous crops, and 2000 m3/ha for vineyards.

Source: MoA, 2016; OECD, 2015a; OECD, 2015b; Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014; Shah, 2014.

Due to the sharp decline in the water table,5 the Guadiana River Basin Management Agency declared the Western Mancha aquifer as provisionally “over-exploited” in 1987, and made this decision definitive in 1994 (Sanchez-Carillo, 2010). The agency introduced an exploitation regime involving several restrictions for groundwater use, such as a prohibition of drilling of new wells and deepening of existing ones, compulsory formation of Water User Associations, and further reducing groundwater abstraction quotas per hectare for entitlement holders.6 The restrictions provoked strong opposition (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2016; Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014; Global Water Partnership, n.d.).

However, the River Basin Management Agency lacked capacity and financial means to ensure compliance with the new rules. Thus, over-abstraction of existing water entitlements continued, along with an increasing number of cases of illegal drilling (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2016). A survey carried out among 70% of irrigators in the basin in 2005 showed that actual groundwater abstraction that year amounted to 54 million m3 above the quantity authorised by the agency, which was 170 million m3 (De Stefano and López-Gunn, 2012).

In addition to the declaration of over-exploitation, the Autonomous Government in Castilla-La Mancha introduced a ten-year Income Compensation Plan in 1992 to reduce abstraction and contribute to wetland recovery, while compensating farmers for income losses. In exchange for economic compensation, farmers were required to use less water (or no water at all), abandon water-intensive crops in favour of water-efficient crops, and reduce fertiliser and pesticide use (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014). In addition, a plan to restructure vineyards encouraged a shift from groundwater use for herbaceous crops (e.g. maize and beet) to less water-intensive crops, such as vineyards (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014).

Promoting ecological restoration: The Special Plan for the Upper Guadiana Basin

Although the policies introduced in the 1980s and 90s managed to reduce abstraction to some extent, severe overdraft still persisted. To address this, the Upper Guadiana Special Plan (UGSP) was approved by the Spanish Council of Ministers in 2008. The plan set out to obtain social and ecological restoration primarily through reallocating water entitlements on equity and efficiency grounds. To do so, the plan sought to reduce abstraction to 200 million m3 per year by 2027 and to raise groundwater levels in order for the Tablas de Daimiel to once again become the natural discharge and overflow from the aquifer (López-Gunn et al., 2011). A Water Rights Exchange Centre was established in order to purchase groundwater entitlements and reallocate them for regularisation and environmental purposes (Garrido and Llamas, 2009). Thirty percent of purchased entitlements were to be reallocated to less water intensive and more economically viable agricultural production. In practical terms, this meant that groundwater entitlements would be purchased from cereal farmers and reallocated to farmers who were illegally using groundwater to irrigate fields with vines, olives, vegetables and horticultural products7 (López-Gunn et al., 2012). The production of these crops yields more labour and added value per drop of water, and is less exposed to competition from other countries (López-Gunn et al., 2012; López-Gunn et al., 2011). The remaining 70% of purchased entitlements were intended for environmental restoration (López-Gunn, 2012).

The UGSP also involved pumping restrictions and closing down of illegal drilling, implemented with the aid of satellite remote sensing and flow metering devices (López‐Gunn et al., 2012; Garrido and Llamas, 2009). Moreover, the plan sought to convert grandfathered water entitlements into entitlements regulated by the 1985 Water Law, and reduce quotas to be consistent with available water resources. The plan also introduced a comprehensive environmental programme, including (re-)forestation measures, in addition to measures for strengthened management, awareness-raising, improved water supply and sanitation, as well as social and economic development (Martinez-Santos et al., 2014; Garrido and Llamas, 2009; Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014).

The total budget for the UGSP amounts to EUR 5.2 billion for the period 2008-27 (OECD, 2015c; PEAG, n.d.) (Figure 8.1). The total budget for the purchase of water entitlements (EUR 810 million) was set based on the price of purchase of groundwater entitlements, which was fixed to a maximum of EUR 10 000 per hectare, serving as a compensation for the farmers (López-Gunn et al., 2011; 2012).8 A 2011 assessment of the cost-effectiveness of the UGSP confirms that the average price of water entitlements remained approximately EUR 5/m3 (López-Gunn et al., 2012).

Figure 8.1. Budget of the Upper Guardiana Special Plan, 2008-27
(EUR millions)

Source: Authors, adapted from PEAG, n.d.

The plan has been criticised for being overly ambitious and costly, as well as for its failure to comply with the principle of full cost recovery for water services set by the EU WFD (Martinez-Santos et al., 2014). The UGSP was supposed to be financed mainly by the Spanish central government, but funding has fallen short due in part to the sharp economic contraction due to the global financial crisis. Consequently, the purchase of groundwater entitlements, notably for environmental restoration, has not materialised to the level that was envisaged (Martinez-Santos et al., 2014). In fact, as much as 81% of the entitlements that had been purchased by 2011 were reallocated to illegal irrigators, primarily vine farmers (López-Gunn et al., 2012). As a result, the UGSP has not had the expected impact in terms of environmental outcomes. However, the redistribution of entitlements to unauthorised users has also had positive implications for the restoration of water resources, leading to a reduction in abstraction of up to 17.03 hm3, as those who sold their entitlements would cease their water consumption (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2016).

Some of the shortcomings of the plan were addressed by measures in the Guadiana District Management Plan (GDMP) for the period 2009-15. Among the measures proposed was an entitlements exchange system that would allow for private contracts of entitlement transfers based on the new legislation, facilitating a sort of water trade. However, this has not been implemented (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2016). Further, the GDMP proposed implementing a new system for declaration of risk in groundwater bodies in the Upper Guadiana basin, for use in cases where there is a chance that good status of water quality and quantity, in accordance with the EU WFD, will not be achieved. In cases where a shortage risk declaration has been made, restrictions to abstractions without compensation can be implemented. This provides a strong measure for restricting use (MoA, 2016; Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014).

Studies show that the UGSP has succeeded in strengthening the regulatory environment in the basin, and that monitoring and sanctioning are being carried out to a much larger extent than before (López-Gunn et al., 2012). As a result of the UGSP, monitoring based on satellite remote sensing of groundwater bodies is now in force; however, the installation of water-metering devices has not begun (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2016). According to the government, the number of existing groundwater entitlements is still three times the available resource, the latter being determined based on a definition of sustainable status of groundwater resources and related ecosystems (MoA, 2016).

The combination of policy measures adopted to improve the groundwater allocation regime in the Upper Guadiana Basin has driven a shift towards higher value crops, and triggered an important reduction in the total volume of abstraction. Overall abstraction of groundwater in La Mancha has been reduced from 640 km3 annually in the mid-1980s to 240 km3 per year currently (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014). The current total abstraction volume is reported to be compatible with the available resources as defined by the GDMP to be necessary to achieve good status by 2027 (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2016). Furthermore, from 2009 to 2012, a 21 metres increase in groundwater levels was observed. In 2011, the Tablas de Daimiel National Park increased its flooded area from 0 to 2000 ha; a faster and larger recovery than ever previously observed and the water level is now close to 1979 records (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014). However, the rise in water table is primarily due to unusually large quantities of precipitation in the period 2006-10 (Martinez-Santos et al., 2014).

Lessons learned

Despite the rise in groundwater levels resulting from policy measures as well as fortuitous precipitation, the purchase of water entitlements under the UGSP has not lived up to the ambition to reallocate a majority of the entitlements to environmental protection purposes. The Upper Guadiana Basin case illustrates that the buy-out of entitlements has the potential to ameliorate environmental conditions if the entitlements are retired or allocated to environmental uses, but usually at a high cost. The case demonstrates the opportunities and challenges related to the altering of existing water entitlements (see Health Check #7, Part I). For the UGSP to succeed in meeting its 2027 objectives, the plan should continue to be reviewed and strengthened, possibly with extended use of risk declarations and new measures allowing authorities to restrict abstraction without compensation.

The transition from the former legislation to the new Water Act is not yet completed, but has nevertheless allowed for a shift from private ownership of groundwater resources towards management under the public domain (see Health Check #2, Part I) and the development of a clear legal definition of water entitlements (see Health Check #11, Part I). Groundwater abstraction control will be gradually strengthened up until 2035, as the grandfathered entitlements from the former water law are converted into regular entitlements, aligned with the allocation regime dictated by the 1985 law.


De Stefano, L. and E. López-Gunn (2012), “Unauthorized groundwater use: Institutional, social and ethical considerations”, Water Policy, Vol. 14, pp. 147–160.

Garrido, A. and M.R. Llamas (eds.) (2009), Water Policy in Spain, DRD Press, Taylor & Francis Group, Boca Raton.

Garrido, A. and M.R. Llamas (2007), “Lessons from intensive groundwater use in Spain: Economic and social benefits and conflicts”, in Giordano and Villholth (eds.), The Agricultural Groundwater Revolution: Opportunities and Threats to Development, CABI, Oxford.

Global Water Partnership (n.d.) “Spain: managing water demand in the Upper Guadiana Basin, Case #18”, %20in%20the%20upper%20Guadiana%20basin%20(%2318).pdf.

López-Gunn, E. et al. (2012). “Tablas de Daimiel National Park and groundwater conflicts”, In De Stefano, L. and Llamas, M.R., Water, Agriculture and the Environment in Spain: can we square the circle?, CRC Press/Balkema, Taylor & Francis Group, London, UK.

López-Gunn, E. et al. (2011), “The impossible dream? The Upper Guadiana System: Aligning challenges in ecological systems with changes in social systems”, Selections from the 2010 World Water Week in Stockholm, (accessed 4 August 2016).

Martinez-Santos, P. et al. (eds.) (2014), Integrated Water Resources Management in the 21st Century: Revisiting the Paradigm, CRC Press/Balkema, Leiden.

Ministry of Agriculture in Spain (MoA) (2016), personal correspondence.

OECD (2015a), “Policies to manage agricultural groundwater use: Spain”, country profile, (accessed 16 July 2016).

OECD (2015b), “Water resources allocation in Spain”, Country profile, (accessed 16 July 2016).

OECD (2015c), Drying Wells, Rising Stakes: Towards Sustainable Agricultural Groundwater Use, OECD Studies on Water, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Plan Especial del Alto Guadiana (PEAG) (n.d.), “Special Plan for the Upper Guadiana Basin: Synthesis document”, (accessed 11 July 2016).

Rodríguez-Cabellos, J.A. (2016), Head of Planning Office, Guadiana River Authority, personal correspondence.

Rodríguez-Cabellos, J.Á. (2014), “Towards IWRM in the Upper Guadiana Basin, Spain”, in Martinez-Santo, P., M.R. Llamas and M. Aldava (eds.), Integrated Water Resources Management in the 21st Century: Revisiting the Paradigm, CRC Press/Balkema, Taylor & Francis Group, London.

Sanchez-Carillo, S. and D. Angeler (eds.) (2010), Ecology of Threatened Semi-arid Wetlands: Long-term Research in Las Tables de Daimiel, Springer, Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London and New York.

Shah, T. (2014), “Groundwater Governance and Irrigated Agriculture”, TEC Background Papers, No. 19, Global Water Partnership Technical Committee, Global Water Partnership,


← 1. This document and any map included herein are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

← 2. The basin measures approximately 16 700 km2, or 2% of Spanish territory. It is located in the south-west of the Iberian Penisula (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2016; López-Gunn et al., 2011).

← 3. The Park was established in 1973.

← 4. Today almost 95% of water entitlements in Upper Guadiana are grandfathered rights, half of which have no temporal limit and half of which will expire in 2035 (MoA, 2016).

← 5. In the Ojos del Guadiana springs, which is the Western Mancha Aquifer discharge point, the water table dropped substantially during the period 1979-1993, and fell further during the 1990-95 drought. In these years, severe environmental damage occurred (Rodríguez-Cabellos, 2014).

← 6. Entitlement quotas for herbaceous crops were limited to 2 000 m3/ha, and for vineyards, quotas were limited to 1 500 m3/ha.

← 7. Recipients of reallocated entitlements also had to meet a set of other criteria, including being under 40 years old, farming as a main occupation, and currently using groundwater for irrigation without formal rights. These criteria reflected the social aspects of the UGSP, and were intended to promote equity by redistributing access to water among farmers (López-Gunn et al., 2012; López‐Gunn et al., 2011).

← 8. The value of groundwaterentitlements to be purchased was determined by an economic study carried out by a consortium for the development of the UGSP. In determining the upper bound of the purchase price, the study considered the overall water availability in the basin and considered the relationship between water use and the gross added value of crops (MoA, 2016). Then, several Public Offers for Acquisition of water entitlements were organised, during which entitlement holders offered to sell their entitlements at an offer price (no greater than the upper bound set by the study). The best offers, which fulfilled the criteria for acquisition were selected and constituted the final price of sale (MoA, 2016).