Connecting waters of life

I rarely blog, but occasionally an experience compels me to record it. Last weekend was a great example of a small project which had a disproportionate impact. In my business life, I frame the work I do in terms of inputs, outputs and outcomes.  This was a small input with a great outcome!

My partner and I returned from our travels about 10 days ago to our Spanish home on the River Guadiaro in Sotogrande. One of the first things we noticed was that the river mouth had been closed by a sandbar thrown up by strong waves. Over the last decades, this has been a recurring problem exacerbated, I believe, by the building of a major marina nearby; and the decision to change the exit point of the river into the sea when the river bank was developed. For at least 20 years, legal battles have been fought over whose responsibility it is to protect the estuary and its wildlife. For a while, the local San Roque council paid for diggers to open the blocked river mouth, but they have recently passed responsibility to the regional government – meanwhile leaving the river closed off – thus turning the estuary water green and suffocating marine life.


Last week, the fish started dying – particularly sea bass which need the tidal seawater flush to make the estuary habitable for them. In the evenings, we also saw dozens of shoals of fish on the surface; we could not establish why, but this is not normal when the river is open. As the days went by, it became distressing to see the worsening situation. By Friday night, I decided to act.

At 9.30 on Saturday morning, I took a spade and a pick and started digging to create a channel from the river to the sea. I was a bit self-conscious and was very aware of bemused dog-walkers and others pausing to work out what I was doing. The smell of dead fish, incidentally, was a great motivator to complete the task; and, as I worked, I became acutely aware of more fish gasping their last gasps in the river behind me.

The sun was coming up and I began to feel that the digging was enjoyable – perhaps even therapeutic – in enabling me to finally do something rather than simply observe.
After an hour, the trench was clearly visible and my objective obvious. A man called Carlos called from the bank offering to help. My Spanish is minimal as was his English, but no words were needed as we dug further. Similarly, another man, Juan, arrived shortly after and put aside his metal-detector to join us (can it be pure chance that my two sons are called Charles and Jonnie – the English versions of my two collaborators, Carlos and Juan?)  By 11.30, we had a clear line to the sea, but needed a break. I left my shovel, pick and gloves hoping that others would pick up from there.

By the time I came back around 1 pm, a young man had dug out the final stretch to enable a small stream of river water to run to the sea. There was now real interest from onlookers and many joined in to deepen the channel and to start rescuing dying fish and transferring them to the sea (it was miraculous to see how virtually dead fish were revitalised within seconds of arriving in the sea).

It was clear from this moment on that Mother Nature (or the law of physics for the more scientifically inclined) was beginning to seize the opportunity we had created. The channel widened as the accumulated estuary water (a metre higher than normal) was turning the stream into a torrent. We could see hundreds of fish circling on the river side desperate to get out to sea; and, surprisingly, as many on the sea side desperate to get in. A fisherman explained that these were mullet returning to the river to breed.

As the flow increased and widened the channel further, individual and groups of fish tried to swim up to the river.

My sense of joy and triumph when the first fish made it is hard to express. As was the sense of wonder as nearly dead fish came back to life so quickly. As the hours went by fish were heading in both directions. And the force of the water had created a widening and deepening channel.

As darkness fell the channel had become a raging torrent as the estuary waters finally broke through at scale.

Early on Sunday morning – 24 hours after the first digging began – the estuary water had dropped by over a metre. Billions of litres had flowed out during the night. By 11 in the morning, the river and sea levels were almost equal as the last of the estuary waters drained out. During the afternoon, the tide was rising and gradually refilling the estuary with sea water. By late afternoon, fish life in the river looked normal; seagulls were returning; and cormorants were diving again.

Today, Monday, it is hard to believe how small human interventions could be so transformative. It is also hard to believe that the enterprise which develops and promotes Sotogrande (with the river and its estuary as a key selling point) has allowed this situation to develop; in the past they have denied responsibility for keeping the river open. It is likely that they have no legal responsibility for the river, but the moral obligation is undeniable. On Saturday, about 10 man hours of work with a shovel and a pick sorted the problem – at least for now. So this is not a problem requiring massive investment.

I intend writing to the CEO of Sotogrande SA to offer help in finding a practical, cost effective way of ensuring that the river is never closed again for more than 24 hours. Any readers who would like to support this approach, please let me know.
Finally, as I was working, various people spontaneously observed that the original exit of the river to the sea was a few hundred meters to the west of the current man-made channel. This is confirmed by my own research which uses aerial pictures before Sotogrande was developed: they show this river and the next river along the coast create a natural sandbar where the river meets the sea, but break through to the west as the river and sea currents come into balance. An obvious potential solution is to dig an opening to the original exit point. This would have a number of other advantages including giving access to a new stretch of beach from the eastern bank. (See pictures below). I will raise this possibility too in my communications with Sotogrande SA. Again, any support or help would be appreciated.
















6 thoughts on “Connecting waters of life”

  1. This is a very refreshing read – thanks for sharing it Geoff. It reminds me of a similar tale I heard in India some years back when one man impossibly decided to fix a reservoir on his own, but soon found that, in so doing, others joined him and together they succeeded in ensuring safe water for all. Three cheers for you, your chums and Margaret Read!

  2. Margaret Mead comes to mind, with individuals and small groups of people sometimes effecting momentous change.

    What a remarkable story – and a model to us all.

    Thank you for doing what you did – even at this distance I feel I can breathe (a little) easier.

  3. Hi Geoff, Love your story. Particularly like the ‘can do’ approach you took. And, of course, the others joining in. So rewarding. Julia x

  4. Geoff, This really is an exciting story and it shows how dangerous the unintended consequences can be for the environment and ultimately for all of us. Well done for drawing attention to the issue and of course for actually doing the job.

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