Sunday 9 May 2010

Going with the flow

By Richard Morley.
Going through some archive material a few days ago I was struck by the following report from a journal called “US Water News”. It’s an online magazine that provides, “Current water and wastewater news for the professional”, and I presume the use of the word “current” is an unintended pun. But I digress.

From a report dated July 2006 regarding water use in Madrid, and yes, I mean this Madrid, not one of the US ones, and how that year’s world cup fever affected water use I reproduce the following:
"MADRID, Spain -- Spain's successful start in the World Cup has produced a brief but beneficial effect on Madrid's water shortage. Glued to a television broadcast of the team's 4-0 victory over Ukraine in its opening game on June 14, water consumption by the capital's residents during the first half was below average at 20,000 liters a second.
After halftime, levels dropped to 19,000 liters a second, the lowest figure of the day.
A further fall of 1,500 liters a second was recorded each time Spain scored, (reported) the Isabel II Canal water company, which supplies the city.
However, it was not all good news for the water authorities.
The halftime whistle led to an instant rush to kitchens and bathrooms which brought a surge to 23,500 liters a second.
Similar behavior was displayed five days later when Spain beat Tunisia 3-1 in its second match to secure a place in the second round of the tournament.
Madrid, like the rest of Spain, is grappling with low rainfall this year. It has left many reservoirs, which are used to supply drinking water, lower than normal."

Ignoring the fact that my spellchecker is screaming about how they spell “litre” and “behavior”, I had to reread that several times.

Minimum water usage in Madrid was TWENTY THOUSAND LITRES A SECOND!

That, according to the Madrid water authorities is low usage, but it’s still a heck of a lot of toilet flushes.

I am no great lover of water to drink, except in whisky, but when, in 1561, Felipe II brought the royal court to Madrid it is said that one of his reasons was that the water here was the best in Spain. I have to admit that in the few times I have actually drank the water without any other flavouring, I found it quite palatable. Unlike, say, in Barcelona, where the taste is so awful you can’t even brush your teeth in the stuff.

Actually tests have proved this. Madrid has the best water in Spain, some have even said in Europe. But it’s a very different story in other parts of the country. Apparently while it is also pretty good in Bilbao and La Coruna, in Zaragoza, Valencia and Ciudad Real analysis shows that the water contains more lime and chlorine and even traces of arsenic.

And to press the point home even further, less bottled water is sold in Madrid than any other part of the country.

Where I used to live in the UK the water was so hard, meaning it had a high calcium content, that one risked concussion when taking a shower. A handful of shampoo would hardly foam, soap would slime, not bubble. In Madrid the tiniest amount of soap foams and bubbles and refuses to wash down the plug hole.

So perhaps Felipe had a point. However, since the arrival of his court which increased the population somewhat, providing sources of water to maintain the city’s needs has been a priority.

So where does it all come from?

Madrid is famous, or infamous, for being the only European capital not standing by a major river. There are those who claim that the origin of the name or the city is derived from the ancient, pre-moslem name, Matrice, and means mother of waters. I can only assume the first person to use this name was being ironic. Madrid’s river, the mighty Manzanares, once described as being “eminently navigable by a coach and horses”, would hardly supply enough water for a child’s paddling pool.

Before Felipe’s arrival the main source of drinking water was from hand dug wells and a few springs on the outskirts of the city. As the new capital expanded there were reports that while palaces and convents had their own private wells, the rest of the population had to share the water from fifty-four wells which was distributed by a few hundred professional water carriers or through a system of tunnels, know by the Arabic name of “Ganats”.

And for three hundred years, despite a steady increase in the population of the city, the situation remained unchanged.

In the one hundred years between 1750 and 1850 Madrid’s population had tripled. In 1850 the number of residents living in the capitol was 281,000.

In 1848 the government decided to find new sources of water for the city and commissioned two engineers, Juan Rafo and Juan de Ribera, to undertake a study of the problem. Their report was the foundation of today’s modern supply. However, it stated that the first reservoir should be built at the confluence of the rivers Lozoya and Jarama, where they deemed the water was of best quality. The only problem was that this was seventy kilometres north of the city.

Inspired by the way the Romans had channeled water about the province two millennia before, the plan was to canalise the water into Madrid. The building of the first dam and the canal was a massive undertaking given the time, but it was deemed an absolute necessity if Madrid was to survive.

On the 18th of June, 1851, Queen Isabel II signed a decree enabling the then Prime minister, Juan Bravo Morillo to begin the work. In honour of her majesty the canal was named for her ´- and still is as the thousands of manholes across the city, with their “CYII” inscription bear witness. In this case “Isabel” is written “Ysabel”, but I have no idea why!

The first dam was built across a valley in the Sierra de Ayllón just a short distance before the Lozoya joins with the Jarama. The valley, at this point is narrow at around eighty metres, deep and with sheer sides. It seemed the perfect place. Nearby there is a hill known to the locals as the “Hill of Olivas” because there were wild olives growing there and so the construction was called the “Pontón de la Oliva”.

The Outer face of the Dam at Pontón de la Olivar

Dams come in three types; Gravity, Arch and Buttress. For its simplicity of construction the Pontón de la Oliva was designed to be of the gravity type. Constructed of heavy stone blocks joined with lime mortar, it runs straight across the valley and gets its strength from its sheer bulk. It sits across the valley with a length of 77.44 metres. Its height is 27 metres and its thickness varies from 39 metres at its base to 7 metres at its “coronation”, which I have found to be the technical word for the top of a dam. The inner side, facing the water, is staggered, while the outer is vertical.

The Inner face of the dam. Note the heavy stonework.

So, on the 11th of August 1851 the first stone of the dam was ceremoniously laid by the grandly named Francisco de Asís Maria Fernando de Bourbon y Bourbon-dos Sicilias, the consort and husband of Queen Isabella. From then on the work was undertaken by a huge army of workers consisting of four hundred “free workers” and some one thousand, five hundred prisoners of the Carlist war.

The workforce of the dam. How many survived?

Of course, they were not just working on the dam. The canal that would carry the water into the city was a major undertaking. Its route would be seventy seven kilometres, crossing in its early stages several valleys before beginning its descent into the capital. The Pontón de la Oliva stands at an elevation of 762 metres so the canal had to be arranged in a series of downward steps before it reached the city. The first of these can be seen after the first one hundred metres of the canal where a controlling sluice regulated the gravity fall of the water flow.

The, now filled in, beginning of the Canal and what replaced it.

But it would not do to reduce the fall quickly and so elevation had to be maintained which necessitated that the height of the canal be constant even as it passed over several valleys. Again, taking their inspiration from the Romans, several aqueducts had to be built over the valleys and also, as it takes effort for water to travel up hill, so did several tunnels.

Sections of the original Canal built, as the plaque shows, in 1852.

The construction of these tunnels, aqueducts, siphons and canals was not without incident and comment. Although the area is within an hours drive of the city today, the journey then would take much longer. Communications between the various sites of construction and Madrid was difficult. This was solved in part by the use of what they called the “telegrafía alada”, or “winged telegraph”, what the English would call the “Pigeon Post”. I just have difficulty imagining a pigeon with a rolled up architects’ plan dangling from it leg. The use of prisoners might seem a way of utilising cheap, or free, labour. But from what I have read the workers were well housed and the prisoners could get a reduction of their sentence by working on the project.

Assuming they survived. One of the great ironies about this project to bring clean water into Madrid was that many of the workers succumbed to cholera, the disease caused by unclean water. This may have been a precursor to the outbreak of the disease in the capital itself a few years later that I wrote about in “The Spanish Way Of Death”.

The dam was completed in 1856 and slowly the waters of the Lozoya, which is more of a stream than a river, began to fill up the valley behind it. Eventually the reservoir would store three hundred cubic metres, or 3,000,000 litres, of water. However, it was another two years before the water arrived in Madrid. On the 24th of June, 1858, at a ceremony in San Bernardo, attended by her majesty, Queen Isabel, the official inauguration of the Canal that bears her name took place. The new canal claimed to be able to supply two hundred litres of water per head of population each day.

Royalty has not always been acceptable in Spain. During the years of the Republic, form 1931 to the end of the Civil War, the water company was known as “Canales del Lozoya”.

A few years later the Pontón de la Olivas began to develop serious faults. There was nothing wrong with its design, but the supporting rock of the valley began to crumble under the weight of the water. Repairs, including some substantial buttressing, were undertaken, but eventually the reservoir had to be abandoned.

The valley revealed behind the dam. The river Lozoya flow crystal clear beside green banks.

But the project had proved its worth. Seeking a solution to the problem from the first dam it was decided to build a new one up stream at El Villar. Now this was something quite special. The designing engineer, Elzeario Boix, wanted build the most modern dam in Europe and not only managed it, but carried out the work in record time: In just three years from 1870 to 1873.

The dam at El Villar.

The dam is a gravity-arch design, the first ever in Europe, meaning that it too relied on its weight to hold the waters back, but curved to allow the stress to push the dam into the rock on both sides, which was technically revolutionary at the time. It is twice as high as El Pontón de la Oliva at fifty metres and much wider at one hundred and seven metres. The valley walls here are not as sheer as at Oliva, but the rock is much more supportive. One hundred and forty years after its construction it remains an integral part of the system. The reservoir holds three time the water that Oliva has tried to do and has a surface area a little larger that Madrid’s Retiro park.

Calculating that original 200 litre / day for a population of 300,000 = 60,000,000 a day. The figure of 20,000 litres PER SECOND I quoted at the start of this article would equate to 1.7 BILLION litres a day. Those are staggering figures, but still only provide 400 litres a day per head. Think about that when you shower, wash your clothes and dishes.

The Atazar Dam. The most modern and largest of the system.

Today the canal de Isabel II continues to supply water from twenty two reservoirs. The canal has long been replaced with huge pipelines that criss-cross the mountains to the north of Madrid like a web. The largest of the reservoirs, Atazar, with a surface area of approximately 20 square kilometres, has a capacity one hundred and fifty times larger than the first containing nearly four hundred and fifty cubic hecto-metres of water. For those not cognisant with the metric system the term “hecto” means one hundred. Each cubic metre of water has 10,000 litres. You do the mathematics!

Google map showing the reservoirs that supply Madrid. The tear-drop A is the site of the Pontón de la Oliva.

What this means is that the mountains to the north of Madrid have been converted into an area of beautiful, unspoiled lakes. To maintain the purity of the water the land has no polluting industry and even using the lakes for recreation is heavily restricted. What is not wide sweeps of water are farm and woodland. The huge concrete dams and channels seem to belong to the landscape and are mostly hidden.

Although the dams and channels necessary to contain this huge amount of water are by their very nature huge and heavy there seems to be a grace, a splendid magnificence, in their construction. The arch shape of modern dams, a feature missing from the Pontón de la Oliva that might have been the cause of its failure, is as natural as the rainbow or the sun glinting on the waters they hold back. And their access roads allow the visitor to witness the craggy gorges and sweeping valleys that hitherto hid their beauty.

It is a wonderful day's expedition. Just an hour's drive north of the city, the banks are places for quiet picnics and silent contemplation. The dams are sights to inspire awe and wonderment.

The old Pontón de la Oliva still stands. The waters it once contained have been allowed to trickle away leaving only the rippling of the clear stream of the Lozoya and its grassy banks. The sheer walls are now the preserve of rock-climbers of which, as you walk along the ancient construction gantries, you can get a frightening sense.

At Pontón de la Oliva. The precipitous ledge walk and rock climbing.

But while you alternatively stand in awe or quiet contemplation consider that every second much more than twenty thousand litres of water are running through more than fourteen thousand kilometres of pipes into your kitchens and bathrooms. Consider that every litre of this water has been treated and purified. It’s a massive undertaking and repeated in every city in the world.

You can admire some wonderful gardens in Madrid. You can play tennis, improve your golf swing or just relax without realising that under your feet are enormous reservoirs of water. The Canal Isabel II is more than just a utility company, it supplies one of the most basic needs the city needs to survive. The reason Madrid is where it is and why it is, is because of the water. I know it’s meant to be unlucky, but just once, fill your glasses with water and raise them in a toast. Cheers!

The plaque at Puentas Viajes commemorating Rafo and Ribera, the engineers that started it all.

Now, watch this remarkable film that tells the story:


  1. The pictures were great!Seeing the pictures wants me to visit the same place.Nice one!

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  3. Madrid has a lot of wonders based on these pictures.I love Madrid!I love these pictures!Hurray for the photographer.

  4. Great article, Richard! I sense a book coming from your accumulation of knowledge and experiences.
    But what do Madrilenos DO with all that water! My family consumption last quarter was a shade over 200 litres per day....about 75 per person!

  5. "In this case “Isabel” is written “Ysabel”, but I have no idea why!"

    In old Spanish (Castilian) it was not uncommon to stylize names like Isabel and Ignacio to Ysabel and Ygnacio, to give you some examples... you could pretty much spell the "i" sound with either Y or I... that was before more rigid and standard spelling rules came across (i.e. RAE).

  6. The article by Richard is so informative for all.