The Court of Justice of the European Union, in a judgment n°C-559/19 Commission/Spain of 24 June 2021, Condemns Spain for failing to take the necessary measures to avoid disturbance of the types of protected habitats located in this natural park caused by illegal water abstraction and thus caused the deterioration of a protected natural area.

The natural area of Doñana in Andalusia, in the south-west of Spain, includes the Doñana National Park and the Doñana Natural Park. In 2006, three protected areas of Community importance under the Habitats Directive were designated in the latter park: Doñana (already a bird conservation area since 1987, Doñana Norte y Oeste and Dehesa del Estero y Montes de Moguer.

During 2009, the Commission and the Parliament received several complaints and petitions denouncing the deterioration of the habitats of the protected natural area of Doñana. In fact, it is also in this area that, apart from these protected areas, the most important European growing areas for red fruits, in particular strawberries, for irrigation from which significant quantities of groundwater are drawn. This catchment exceeds, in some areas, the renewal of groundwater, which has, for many years, led to a decline in their level.

The Commission considered that this situation constituted a breach of Union law, namely the prohibition of deterioration provided for in the Water Framework Directive and, with respect to various habitats in protected areas that are drying up as a result of declining groundwater levels, the prohibition of degradation under the Habitats Directive. It therefore brought an action before the Court for failure to fulfil obligations against Spain.

In its judgment, the Court found that Spain had failed to fulfil its obligations under the Water Framework Directive in two respects. In the first place, Spain did not take into account the illegal abstraction of water and the abstraction of water intended for urban supply when estimating the abstraction of groundwater from the Doñana region as part of the more detailed characterisation of the Guadalquivir 2015-2021. Indeed, according to the Court, the Guadalquivir Hydrological Plan 2015-2021 does not contain all the information necessary to determine the impact of human activity on groundwater bodies in the Doñana region, within the meaning of the Water Framework Directive.

Furthermore, the Court also notes a breach of the obligations arising from the Habitats Directive, in view of the fact that Spain has not taken appropriate measures to avoid significant disturbance of protected habitat types, located in the three protected areas «Doñana», «Doñana Norte y Oeste» and «Dehesa del Estero y Montes de Moguer», caused by the abstraction of groundwater from the protected natural area of Doñana since 19 July 2006.

Finally, several scientific data have made it possible to establish a causal link between the overexploitation of water catchments located on the natural site of Doñana and the lowering of the water level which has led to the deterioration of the natural area.

Thus, the judges confirm, on the one hand, that the deterioration of these habitats persists and that the state of these habitats will continue to deteriorate due to the decline in the groundwater level of the said aquifer and, on the other hand, that Spain has not taken the necessary measures to put an end to such deterioration.