28th March 2021 Daniel Roca

Tordera river mouth: lights and shadows

Frequently, when it comes to deciding which natural areas get protection and which ones don’t, one sad reality surfaces: most of the lucky ones are the ones with no potential for urban, industrial or agricultural development. In other words, it is relatively easy to protect (at least on paper) a mountain range. Not so much a coastal area near a great city. So when decision makers analyze and propose specific areas to protect, they often neglect areas which are, in fact, the most biodiverse. This is the case of Catalonia, where most of the protected land falls into mountain and woodland habitats. Ecosystems like beaches and coastal wetlands (or steppe land) are usually not on the list. Yes, there are a few well known sites, like the Ebro delta, the Llobregat delta and the Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, that enjoy some (hard earned) protection. But, for the most part, the coastline in Catalonia has been treated as a touristic development ground as a whole, with no limits, and speculative initiatives have been imposed over the years, to the point that, in present day, most of said coastline is already under cement. It has become a continuum of towns and cities and it is no longer possible to perceive where a town ends and the next begins. The chaotic, massive development and planning (or lack of) started in the 60s has left us with an ugly landscape and, moreover, has led to the loss of many valuable natural sites and the local extinction of species.

One extreme case of neglecting a precious natural area is that of the Tordera river mouth, or the Tordera river delta as a whole. Asphyxiated by camping sites on both sides, it has remained out of the spotlight and completely forgotten (except for a few locals) for the last decades. The degradation of the area reached a peak just a few years ago, when the coastline was alarmingly retreating, and human disturbance came to ignominious levels (suffice to say that the sand bar right in front of the river mouth became a nudist beach, or that dogs and humans left not one inch of terrain free of constant crushing).

Now, all that changed suddenly on January 2020, when Gloria storm arrived. Unexpectedly for many people, because they had never seen a storm like that before. But the reality is that the so-called “damage” caused by the storm was only the result of years of continued shrinking of the waterways, occupation of natural floodplains and of the coastline. So in fact, what happened can be considered normal, and will happen again when the right meteorological conditions are in place (namely, a strong high pressure area in the North sea and a low pressure to the south pushing humid and strong winds from the east into the western Mediterranean coast).

So yes, there was a bridge knocked down, coastal buildings and camping sites damaged. Of course there were. Luckily no human lives were lost (although could have). But, aside from damage to human structures, Gloria storm brought so many sediments to the river mouth that the coastline advanced around 300 meters and created a “new” lagoon, resembling that existing in the first half of the XX century and before. Nature recovered overnight a lot of what was lost. And so this post is a celebration of the opportunity that was given to us that day to make things right, to give back to nature what we should never have taken. Also to give this challenge ahead of us (because it won’t be easy) a bit more visibility, in this case, to an English speaking and potentially global audience.

Gloria storm before and after, Tordera river mouth

Gloria storm before and after (montage). Here you can see how some buildings were, prior to the storm, almost in contact with the sea water, after years of coastline retreat. Also the newly recovered coastal lagoon which, in recent months has become more naturally shaped (less protruding). (Original image: Google maps)

Gloria storm TorderaThose buildings didn’t resist the waves and have now been demolished, freeing some of the space for future natural restoration.

Click and/or pinch to enlarge this and further photos.

Little egretIt didn’t take long for wildlife to take up the area. For the first time in decades, waterbirds had a resting place between Llobregat Delta wetlands and Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, along ~100 km of coastline fully dedicated to human residence and tourism. To get the sense of the total occupation by human activities, just open Google maps and start navigating north from Barcelona city. You won’t find a single free spot of coast until you reach the Tordera river mouth. Further north, the coast becomes rugged and rocky, thus not as well suited to hold wetlands.

This Gif allows for a good visualization of the extensive area occupied by camping sites (the rest is straight concrete buildings) in the Tordera delta area. You can also see how the two campings strangling the river mouth, which pose also a major threat to human safety in future floods, could easily be relocated to free and rewild a part of the lost ecosystems. Click and/or pinch to zoom in (Original image source: Google maps).

Here you can see how dangerous the area can become during harsh weather, and how far inland the waves went during Gloria storm. The whole area was underwater for days. Not the best spot to locate a tourist spot. Click and/or pinch to zoom in. Original image source: Google maps and Firefighters video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seoEKfWQlKc)

So what are the lights? For the first time ever, people are starting to become aware of the natural treasure existing there. For the first time, the area around the river mouth has been closed to public access, and for the first time there’s talk of conceding the area a legal rank of protection. And what are the shadows? Well, some people seem to not want to follow the rules and keep entering the closed area (even with free running dogs!), disturbing the birds. Also, although the possibility of relocating or closing the two camping sites is for the first time something being considered, for now it’s only an idea, and no political decision has been taken. The possibility of the area to become a “Natural Reserve” is for now restricted to the river itself and a thin stripe of coast which could retreat again in the future if the aquifer is not respected to a minimum, or if sand from the sea floor is dragged to “enhance” other beaches (as it happened in the past).

Tordera river mouth restorationFor now, though, we’ll stick to the lights and have hope that reason will win this time. Here’s a recreation I made to envision a potential rewilding of the area. A rewilding that would not only benefit the lost ecosystems, but also people living nearby, who would gain a new hotspot to enjoy nature (Original image: Google maps). Click and/or pinch to zoom in.

Tordera campingThe camping owners are not giving up, though, and are getting ready for a new season that will bring loud crowds where there should be peace.

Camping TorderaA man mindlessly eating an orange, only dimly aware of what’s in front of him, flushes a group of Garganeys and shorebirds, as right now there is no buffer between the lagoon and the campsite.

Tordera observatoryTordera observatoryUntil a full restoration arrives, the area can still be enjoyed. A new observatory was installed last summer, and has become very loved by locals, that can observe the area without disturbing wildlife.

Kentish PloverThe tiny but beautiful Kentish Plover would be one of the species to potentially recolonize the area after becoming extinct from the whole Maresme region, where it was once a common breeding bird, back when beaches were still natural habitats, not just sand playgrounds for humans.

Audouin's GullAudouin’s Gull already uses the area as a resting place. Who’s to say what would happen if there existed a real human disturbance-free area? Maybe it would become also a breeding bird.

FlamingoFlamingoFlamingoes are becoming a common sight in the area, as this one being chased by a Yellow-legged gull, then landing again on the lagoon.

GullsThe area is now a lovely hotspot for gulls. Yellow-legged, Black-headed, Mediterranean, Audouin’s and Lesser Black-backed are easily seen, and others like Little, Slender-billed, Common or even Caspian and Herring Gulls are visiting the area from time to time.

Mixed flock of gullsA mixed flock of Mediterranean and Black-headed gulls, with a Little gull in-between (most migrate on the sea never reaching the coast).

GarganeyJust arrived from Africa, a group of Garganeys are excited to get to their breeding grounds further north, as can be noted by their constant rattling sounds. For now, though, they can have deserved rest here, in the Tordera river mouth.

AvocetLots of shorebirds, as this pair of Avocets, can feed and rest on the sandbar and the river, as long as they are not disturbed by human presence.

At first glance, this could seem as a standing water pond, but is in fact flowing water of the river Todera just before reaching the sea.

Meadow pipitA colourful Meadow pipit that could pass for a Red-throated if seen only briefly or not closely inspected.

Tordera river mouth restorationTo end this post, another recreation of a sight that many of us hope one day (sooner than later) will become a reality. Click and/or pinch to zoom in (Original photo: Google maps). Until then, we will do our best to bring the subject to people’s attention and to help in any way we can.