Jávea's Inescapable Floods

Extended version of an article which appeared in The Grapevine, September 2011
by Christine Betteron-Jones

Jávea's inescapable floods

Property agents are fond of saying that the WHO recognises Jávea as having "one of the best climates in the world". What they fail to reveal is that Jávea also holds the Spanish record for the most rainfall in a single day, 871mm, almost three feet of rain over a 24 hour period on October 2nd 1957. This is one of the highest daily rainfall figures for the whole of Europe, and not far off figures quoted for tropical storms and monsoons. Indeed, the Comunidad Valenciana is renowned for its range of extrordinary natural events such as earthquakes, landslides, torrential rain, hailstones, high winds, temporary lack of rain, abnormally high and low temperaures, not to mention bush fires and violent thunderstorms. As a result, according to Professor J. Olcina Cantos of Alicante University, the Comunidad Valenciana is one of the most risky regions in Spain. Welcome to "Paradise" !

The 1957 deluge was centred on the Montgó and slopes of La Plana. As a result, the Old Town and Port were decimated. Bridges and fishermen's cottages were washed away, livestock killed and harvests ruined. The whole of the Pla (the flat plain between, and inland from the Port and Arenal) was covered with water. In those days the Rio Gorgos flowed down what is now Avenida Jaime I , past what would be Mas y Mas in the Port to enter the sea next to the Casa del Cable, (now an exhibition room along the Port promenade). The Grava beach disappeared as a result of the storm. 29 families lost everything they had. It was a disaster.

Since then, the region around Jávea (the Marina Alta), has seen significant flooding at frequent intervals, with six major events during the '80s and '90s alone. Then on October 12th 2007, almost 50 years to the day after the 1957 deluge, Jávea was massively inundated once more. The Gorgos broke its banks, flood waters again swamped the Pla and swept through the Canal de la Fontana carrying pleasure boats out to sea, dumping 52 of them on the Arenal beach. Underground car parks became under-water ones, and the Arenal area a shallow lake. This time the cause of the deluge was not so much the rainfall on Jávea itself ("only" 439mm for the month), but persistent heavy rain on the mountains in the interior. This rain fed approximately 150km of streams and tributaries which in turn fed the river Gorgos.

A perfect Storm

Why is Jávea prone to such spectacular rainfall and floods? Simply because conditions here are just perfect. Firstly, we happen to be located at a spot where high, cold air from the far north, meets low level warm winds, creating particularly powerful convection weather systems. The warm air tends to circulate over the Mediterranean because of the presence of Africa and the Atlas mountains and it gets loaded with huge amounts of moisture. The mountains of the Marina Alta, so close to the sea, act as triggers for our torrential autumn rains which are popularly known as the "Gota fría" or "Cold drop".

The areas at risk of flooding have increased since the 1960's because of the abandonment of traditional agriculture on mountain terraces, soil erosion and the housing boom along the coast. In addition, climate change and the warming of the Mediterranean will increase the frequency of torrential downpours here, so we must be prepared for further deluges and extensive flooding.

What is being done? In January 2003 the Valencian Government approved a comprehensive Territorial Action Plan for the prevention of flood risk (PATRICOVA). It lays down regulations for building and development in areas prone to flooding, as well as flood prevention measures and its legal obligations must be complied with by all municipalities in the region.

Risky development

In this context, many eyebrows were raised when in September 2003, the PP administration in Jávea pushed through approval for the construction of two apartment blocks (Mármara and Salacia) behind the Arenal beach. These buildings, part of projects numbered Arenal 3 and 3a, are sited on a flood risk zone identified by the PATRICOVA plan. By the time a new administration took over in 2005, it was too late to stop the works and in 2007 the presence of the partially completed buildings and inadequate drainage undoubtedly contributed to the extent of flooding in the Arenal area and damage to other properties. The natural drainage was so poor, heavy duty submersible pumps had to be used to get rid of surface water, and in January 2008 the Town Hall was forced to build a storm drain to collect surface water from Avenida Tamarits and the area near the new apartment blocks.

The 2007 floods highlighted deficiencies in PATRICOVA and it is currently under revision, having been criticised for lacking detailed information and mapping, and not taking into full account flood risk changes created by urban development. For example, it classifies the Pla as being at flood risk once every 500 years. In reality the area has been flooded twice in 50 years.

However, developers are not so easily deterred. Eyebrows rose even higher when in 2008 a proposal was put forward to build a large urban development on another flood risk area, the Saladar. This zone of flat, undeveloped land between Barclays Bank / Tosalet and the sea is only 1.2m above sea level. It is protected from the sea by the elevated fossilised sand dunes (tosca) of Montañar II, but is prone to flooding during the rains, being fed by streams from the Tosalet area. The sub-soil is very impermeable and does not drain easily. During the Roman era (and for hundreds of years later) it was used as the location of a sea salt factory. The Roman channel and remains of a water wheel which lifted sea water into the Saladar (which means saline ground or salt marsh) still exist today as the Séquia de la Nòria (séquia from arabic = channel to carry water ; nòria = water wheel). The Saladar also has ecological value as is one of the last areas of marshy coastal land in the region.

These qualities held no value for the group known as "La Agrupación de Interés Urbanístico el Saladar" (the group with interests in urbanising the Saladar), the president of which was Salvador Vila (Developer, Grupo Saladar). They presented their plans to build 1718 houses on the Saladar at a meeting in the Parador in January 2008. Being aware of the flood risks, they proposed the creation of a permanent, one metre deep, artificial lake with a capacity of 153,000 cubic metres (catering for floods estimated to occur once every 25 years). The lake would collect water from the streams of Adsubia, Tosalet, Cansalades and Portixol. The standing water was to be circulated by a pump (a bit like a massive swimming pool) and during very bad floods, spill over onto the Arenal beach via a 10 metre wide, open storm channel. They were not sure what would happen if a one in 500 year flood happened (i.e. a flood such as happened in 1957 and again in 2007). The plans were met with public cynicism, especially since the Agenda21 citizen's forum had already agreed that the area should be used as a public space.

The developers were well within their rights to make such proposals, since under the 1990 General Town plan (still in force today) the fringes of the Saladar were zoned for intensive urban development, while the centre was zoned for green and sports areas. The Vila plan disappeared from public view and mayor Monfort proposed to the Valencia Government that the area should no longer be classified as being urbanisable, but protected instead. Despite this, and the economic crisis, Saladar land owners continued to cling to the dream of building on their flood plain. Monfort engineered a surprise move, and in a very late ammendment to a motion on the new General Town Plan he designated the Saladar area as non-urbanisable because it was a flood zone. His opponents were caught off guard, and the motion was passed in July 2010. Saladar saved ? Perhaps - the re-zoning needs Valencia's approval, PATRICOVA is still being updated and the new General Town Plan has yet to be finalised.

The de-classification of urbanisable land is a legal minefield and full of potential liabilities for the Town Hall's coffers. Next month we look at land classification and Jávea's General Town Plans.

For more about the Saladar and the floods see: http://agenda21-xabia.wikidot.com/saladar
For a summary of the risk of flooding on the Alicante Coast see: Increased risk of Flooding on the Coast of Alicate (Region of Valencia, Spain) - J. Olcina Cantos and others.

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