Main authors: Antonio Ferreira, Inês Amorim Leitão
Editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: “Quick scan” for basic information on case studies, governance structures & multi- actor platforms. FAIRWAY Internal Report, 2017

1. General context

BaixoMondego Portugal Location
Figure 1
BaixoVouga Portugal Location
Figure 2

The Portuguese case study two contiguous river basins: the Lower Mondego Valley (Figure 1) and the Lower Vouga Valley (Figure 2). Public drinking water supply comes from groundwater extracted near the Mondego and Vouga Rivers as they leave mountain areas and before entering the plains, where are the more problematic intensive agriculture and husbandry areas. In this case, drinking water is only supplied in the Lower Valley Vouga. Nevertheless, both study sites are intensively irrigated due to agricultural activity, then significant part of the population engaged in agriculture exploits the groundwater aquifers for irrigation and in some cases for drinking water. Both study sites are located at the coastal area of the Portuguese Central Region and belong to the same regional water authority although they belong to different Inter-Municipal Communities (Coimbra and Aveiro). A recently released study states that all the aquifers monitored in Portugal show signs of water pollution derived mainly from agriculture and husbandry activities. The main problem is with ammoniac nitrogen and nitrates, and it is caused by excess nutrients added to the soils, especially since manure and wastewater sludge are increasingly being added to the soil as fertilizers. This is compounded by the impact of por management of intensive husbandry that contaminates both aquifers and superficial water bodies. For this reason, about 42% of the aquifers have nitrate concentrations exceeding those at country level. Some surface water bodies also exceed seasonally the limits of several pollutants for drinking water. In these cases, the surrounding farms have their access to subsidies cut.

2. The particular case of Lower Mondego and its role in FAIRWAY

Although drinking water supply is made upstream of the Lower Mondego, many farmers in the rural areas of this study site have wells that they use both for irrigation and drinking water.

Both case studies are on unconsolidated quaternary sediments (in the case of Aveiro/Vouga, less than 2000 years old) and both are located in sub-humid Mediterranean climate areas. The mountain areas may receive more than 1500 mm rainfall per year (in some cases up to 3000 mm), while the lower catchment areas (river plains where the intensive agriculture and husbandry are located), rainfall varies from 600 mm yr-1 near the sea, to around 1000 mm yr-1.

The pollution problems occur mainly during the dry summer season, when evapotranspiration strongly exceeds the amount of rainfall. This occurs during crop vegetation growth period and therefore puts extreme pressure on the ground and surface water resources. The combination of very high evapotranspiration, increasing fertilization with organic residues from intensive husbandry and wastewater treatment plant sludge, very long dry spells and massive irrigation during the summer, has a negative impact on concentrations of pollutants in superficial water bodies and aquifers.

In these areas, soils are being used as a medium to dispose of organic waste, both in a context of improving soil structure and fertility, and within a circular economy strategy that aims at the closure of energy and matter loops at the local scale. Thus soils, and especially agriculture soils, are the universal pollutant degradation media, and play an important role in loop closure of organic material. However, this is not done without risk, and for that reason the objectives are to control the addition of residues to the soil, in order to keep soil quality under the legal concentrations limits, for both groundwater and surface water, all year round and particularly during the summer dry period.

Within FAIRWAY, the objectives are to:

  1. limit the concentration of nitrate to 50 mg NO3/l in superficial water bodies and groundwater at agricultural area;
  2. limit the concentration of each individual pesticide to 0.1 µg/l and of total amount of pesticides to 0.5 µg/l in superficial water bodies and groundwater at agricultural area;
  3. establish a governance participatory framework, to discuss strategies and practices and implement best solutions in a swift way, involving all stakeholders in a common plan of action.

These are the thresholds for drinking water defined by the Law-Decree 152/2017.

Targets for agricultural management are to assess:

  1. the impact of cropping systems and establishment of application thresholds for the soils in the two study areas;
  2. to what extent the current alternative cropping systems and crop management techniques (e.g., organic farming, integrated pest control), can improve or worsens the pollutant concentrations and control (for nitrogen and pesticides).

3. Mitigation measures used

Mitigation measures identified for the case study are as follows.

  1. Increase manure and wastewater treatment plant application efficiency (this has started);
  2. Crop rotation, with leguminous plants to improve the concentration of nitrogen in the soil and reduce the need for inputs, either organic or inorganic.
  3. Explore the role of alternative cropping systems, such as organic farming and integrated protection as approaches to reduce the risk of superficial and groundwater contamination risk.

A recent assessment, made by Associação Zero (an Environmental NGO) on databases made available by the government, pinpointed the importance of intensive agriculture and animal husbandry as the main factors of groundwater pollution. In addition, recent information by the Regional Environmental Agency (governmental) linked pollution problems in the superficial water bodies at the Vouga River Basin to poor farm practices. The information is used to identify the farms contributing to the poor performance and, as a consequence, restricted access to subsidies. The use of sludge from waste water treatment plants has potential pollution problems which need to be assessed. There is little information available on pesticides, so their use has to be surveyed and the risk assessed.

No information is available on the results of the mitigation measures apart from the results used by Associação Zero, that revealed traces of N pollution in all the aquifers monitored, of which 42% were above the maximum admissible for drinking water. In the case of superficial water bodies, there is some evidence of high concentrations of N pollutants in areas with poor farm management practices, during the long summer dry spell, in a process related also with inefficient irrigation. No organized information appears to be available for pesticides.

Regarding remaining challenges, some research is being performed on maintaining soil quality and productive capacity by using organic residues from agriculture management, intensive livestock production or waste water treatment plant sludge. Nevertheless, little is known on the potential impacts for water resources pollution. The scarce information on pesticides is a further challenge.

This case study is a pilot study for a national programme. It is replicable and transposable to most of the intensive irrigated agriculture in Portugal, that to a very large extent (more than 90%) are located at the rivers plains, where the same crops and cropping management systems are used.

4. Current water governance system

Actors and stakeholders involved in water governance and their roles

The present governing system is supported by the Regional Environmental Agencies in conjunction with the Regional Agriculture Authority. The management (e.g. licensing, survey, monitoring, and penalty of non-compliers) is performed at regional level, unless more than one region is involved. There is also a Advisory Water Regional Board, where problems, strategies and actions are discussed between representatives from all relevant organizations, NGOs, and relevant personalities (mainly senior University professors). Ultimately, farmers are the responsible for governing their own farms and they assume the entire responsibility.

Water quality control processes

The Regional Environmental Agency (REA) monitors water quality and, if a problem is identified, it is helped by the Regional Agriculture Authority (RAA) to establish an action plan. Licensing of farms is done by RAA, after receiving a document from REA with an analysis and a proposed decision. The farm management options are performed by the farmer, whose actions are controlled by fine (punishment-penalties) if he delivers poor environmental performance, or by the access or not to subsidies that generally are dependent on good environmental performance.

Targets are set by the legislation, and have to be achieved by the farmers. Targets are compulsory and set at national level for law decrees and must be complied with by all the farmers in Portugal. The monitoring responsibility lies with the Regional Environmental Agency at specific critical/strategic locations. Farm management is the farmers’ responsibility. Pesticides are not yet monitored systematically.

Enforcement is extremely important in the Portuguese context. If there are water problems in a given area as a result of poor agriculture management practices, the farmers will face legal actions, will be heavily fined, and will lose the right to subsidies. This is a dictatorial context. If farmers misbehave, there is little margin for agreement. They will be fined, probably by REA.

Engagement and multi-actor platforms

A formal river catchment advice organisation is already in existence, with about 100 members including organizational representatives and personalities, and covering the entire stakeholder diversity, that ordinarily meets once a year to discuss the regional water problems and the strategies and actions to solve them.

For the benefit of FAIRWAY, and to improve the interaction between the project and the relevant stakeholders, we are pooling representative group of stakeholders to follow the project closely and provide comments and suggestion in order ensure the project outcomes are readily acceptable and applicable to the region. This informal counseling board is under construction.

Under the Regional Water Authority there is a river catchment advice council (in the Central Region of Portugal it includes 3 major rivers Mondego, Lis and Vouga), where all the organizational stakeholders take place, together with personalities and members of NGOs, farmers associations, and other organizations with interests or with an impact on water amount and quality. This is mandatory by law. The pool of the more relevant stakeholders, and of farmers and their associations will act as MAP for the Portuguese study areas.


Go To Top