Alarm bells started to ring at the start of the month when machinery began operating to clear the Guadaiza riverbed in Marbella, classified by the Andalusian regional government as a ZEC (Special Conservation Zone) and EFS (Outstanding River Area).
Around ten years have now passed since the last clean-up, but now that the rainy season is approaching, the risk of flooding in the area has reappeared. In recent years the bridge that connects the districts of San Pedro and Nueva Andalucía via the Carril del Potril has flooded often, leaving whole areas of Marbella completely cut off and creating perilous conditions for drivers trying to cross the bridge.
However, the first cleaning works, carried out with a large machine, quickly attracted opposition. Environmental groups, parties, such as Opción Sampedreña (OSP) and Impulsa Ciudad, and individuals warned that the clearing was destroying a natural area of special value.
The Guadaiza, a river that runs for 22 kilometres and marks the boundary between the districts of San Pedro and Nueva Andalucía, is the natural habitat of, among other species, the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), an animal that eludes humans and is rarely seen.
Biologist Diego Rodríguez, one of those who raised the alarm, documented in an extensive report the existence of fresh otter excrement next to the riverbed on 3 October, evidence of the presence of specimens in the area. He also warned that this is the breeding season, and that the first phases of works did not take the necessary precautions to avoid environmental damage.
In the report, he says that the action already carried out by the town hall has eliminated the native willows, tarayas and oleanders on the riverband and has left behind invasive species such as acacias and eucalyptus, which has altered the structure of the riverbed.
According to Rodríguez, the section of river bank to the south of the Tirso de Molina bridge, just a few metres from where the machines have operated, is the last to retain the original configuration of the Guadaiza in the form of pools and riverbank vegetation that provides natural shelter for the young.
If this stretch, he says in the study, is subjected to the same clearing process as in the upper part, the otters would be permanently displaced from the area in the middle of the reproduction season and would be exposed to a serious risk of extinction in the area.
The town hall says that the actions to be carried out downstream will be different to those carried out in the area around the bridge, precisely to preserve the natural environment of the otter.
The head of the Environment department at the town hall, Victoria Martín-Lomeña, told SUR that of the 22 kilometres of the Guadaiza, nine are protected and the cleaning undertaken by the council will only take place in the last two. Of these, so far only 40 metres have been cleared to prevent El Potril bridge being cut off again by flooding, which could cause a serious safety problem.
She added that the machine used so far will be replaced by another, smaller one and that it will be assessed section by section to carry out a selective cleaning that, she says, will not affect the pools where the otters find their natural habitat. "It will be a slower and more meticulous job," she says.
For this reason, she explained, it is not yet possible to say how long the work will take, initially estimated at two or three weeks.
OSP councillors have argued that the town hall doesn't have the permission to use machinery for the cleaning of the riverbed and that it should be carried out manually.