Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

How the Ebro Hydrographic Confederation and Other River Basin Authorities Manage Spain’s Water Resources

The territory of Spain is divided among nine river basin authorities known as hydrographic confederations (HCs), which control and manage major water infrastructure, water-related public property, and hydrological planning within their respective areas. The HCs control and operate large state-owned reservoirs and canals that deliver water to local irrigation communities (districts) and other users. One of the largest of the confederations is the Ebro HC, which manages the Ebro River basin, located in northeastern Spain. In this interview, Ramón Lúquez, the Ebro HC’s deputy technical director and operations manager, tells Irrigation Leader about Spain’s basin-based water resources management system and the activities of his agency. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your experience and how you came to be in your current position. 

Zones of irrigation within the Ebro basin.

Ramón Lúquez: I am a civil engineer. I have been pursuing my career within the Ebro HC for 14 years. I specialize in the construction, management, use, and maintenance of hydraulic infrastructure and worked first on the right bank of the Ebro basin and then on the left. For the last 2 years, I have held the position of deputy technical director and operations manager. In this position, I coordinate the management of the various operational zones in the basin—in total, there are 18 operational councils that help administer its distinct subareas—as well as manage energy generation and forestry-related activities.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about Spain’s system of river basin–based water resources management. 

Ramón Lúquez: In Spain, water policy is made and executed by river basin organizations known as HCs. They are similar to state agencies, although they are technically part of the central state administration and have both civil-servant and non-civil-servant personnel. There are nine HCs in total, covering all of Spain. Each of them has complete authority over water infrastructure, water-related public property, and hydrological planning in its territory. 

The HCs were created almost 100 years ago to fulfill a vision of integrated river basin management. The Ebro HC was the first river basin agency in the world, created in 1926 by King Alfonso XIII after the crisis at the end of the 19th century, when Spain lost the Spanish-American War, and with it, its last colonies. Its functions are comparable to those of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created around the same time period. 

The HCs are independent agencies associated with the Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge. Their geographical dimensions vary. For example, the Ebro River basin is the second-largest basin in the Iberian Peninsula, covering 85,000 square kilometers (about 32,800 square miles), an area similar in size to South Carolina. The HC primarily manages large state-owned reservoirs and canals—in other words, infrastructure that has been constructed and is managed by the central government of Spain. We currently operate more than 50 large reservoirs and manage more than 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) of main canals. In addition to managing our own infrastructure, we are also charged with the inspection of private reservoirs, the management and control of public land and property related to the rivers within the basin, water quality control, and proposals for water resources planning. 

Work on the Enciso Reservoir in La Rioja.

Irrigation Leader: The HCs form part of the national government of Spain. Do they have any relation to Spain’s autonomous communities (regional governments)? 

Ramón Lúquez: The work of the HCs, by definition, takes place in river basins that span the territory of more than one autonomous community. For hydrographical basins that lie completely within the territory of one autonomous community, there are within-community river basin agencies that play a role similar to that of the HCs. In the case of river basins that span multiple communities, there is a flexible and collaborative relationship among the various regional governments. In fact, the autonomous communities are represented in the governing and management bodies of the HCs themselves, so their interests are always taken into account. It should also be kept in mind that river basins often cross international borders as well—for example, the borders with France and Andorra—so there are also international treaties that regulate certain water transfers. 

Irrigation Leader: When did the current system of HCs come into existence? 

Ramón Lúquez: The system began in 1926 with the creation of the Ebro HC; the rest of the HCs were created subsequently on the same principles, namely the importance of managing river basins as a whole and of public participation in water management. 

Irrigation Leader: What is the relationship between the HCs and the irrigation communities (districts)? 

Ramón Lúquez: Our relationship with water users, and with the irrigation communities in particular, is close. Like the autonomous communities, the irrigation communities have a seat in the HCs’ governing and management bodies. Their needs and concerns are very much part of the HCs’ decisions about water management, particularly when it comes to the management of reservoirs and canals and the development of basin-level hydrological plans. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the Ebro HC. 

Ramón Lúquez: The Ebro HC has around 850 employees, around 200 of whom are part of my department, which means that it plays an important role in the ordinary management of the agency. The majority of the employees are core staff who work on site at the reservoirs and canals in our territory. There is also a much smaller technical staff made up of engineers and technical engineers. 

Because there are so many individual irrigation communities, Spanish water law allows them to form public law corporations called central councils or general communities, which makes it easier for the HCs to interact with them. In the Ebro basin, for instance, there is a federation of more than 110 irrigation communities known as FEREBRO. 

As for the Ebro HC’s budget, the agency has proposed that its budget for the next few years should be around 115 million euros ($137,200,175). In addition to the works carried out with its own budget, the Ebro HC also carries out project within the basin that are directly financed by the Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge or are financed with European Union funds.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the Ebro basin’s climate, hydrology, and agriculture.

Ramón Lúquez: The Ebro basin has a predominantly Mediterranean climate. The majority of the flow of the Ebro River derives from tributaries that come down from the Pyrenees and join it from the north. Spain in general and the Ebro basin in particular have highly irregular flow patterns, which is why there is a long history of building reservoirs to store water and regulate flow.

The top crops in the Ebro HC’s area are alfalfa, barley, corn, rice, and wheat. There is also a lot of fruit production. The top issues for irrigators in this basin include modernizing their irrigation systems so as to reduce their water consumption as much as possible and implementing operations management technology to increase yields while also protecting the environment. Another priority is the effort to conjunctively manage water and energy.

Irrigation Leader: What are the Ebro HC’s top issues?

Ramón Lúquez: The agency’s top objectives are to improve the knowledge and management of water resources, improve the state of water bodies and river dynamics, and strengthen our guarantee of irrigation water supplies.

Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future?

Ramón Lúquez: The HCs have demonstrated their usefulness for water management and conflict resolution for almost 100 years. I believe that managing water within river basin boundaries rather than along other geographic or political boundaries is the best way to avoid regional water conflicts and to manage water resources. The HCs do this while also taking into account the contributions of users and people from other public agencies.

Nevertheless, we face big challenges: improving the level of innovation in water management, optimizing use, and investing in conserving and maintaining the water assets we have. All this must be done within the framework of water resources planning and our quest to improve the state of our water bodies.

This agency is crucial for continuing all these actions into the future. It is firmly established in this area and has a close relationship with it. It can continue playing this important role in decades to come, especially as we experience climate change and the growing irregularity of water resources it is expected to bring with it. 

Ramón Lúquez is the deputy technical director and operations manager at the Ebro Hydrographical Confederation. He can be contacted at rluquez@chebro.es.