Awareness of this water catchment system slowly developed in my consciousness over the few years we have been living at Cortijada Los Gázquez. We asked Juana (the local baker who lived here as a child) why the well was dry and we were told it had stopped raining. Old boys, sporting at least one ‘apellido’ Gázquez came to visit the old farm, the place of their birth. Rumour had it that ‘outsiders’ were renovating the house and during fiesta times they just had to come and see. They told us stories of giant boulders buried behind the well and that if they were taken out and cleaned, on their return to the ground, the water would once more flow.
At the same time we had an increasing interest in permaculture, a branch of ecological design and ecological engineering that develops sustainable human settlements and self-maintained agricultural systems modelled from natural ecosystems. My interest was particularly around mechanical means to trap and yield water in arid landscapes.
Observation clearly told me that at one point in time the well fed the ‘embalsa’ or dam, a container that held in the region of 20,000 Lt of water. The retaining wall even had a washboard built into its surface. From here I observed old ‘acequias’, canals that would have taken water from the dam to irrigate land at slightly lower elevations. At these lower elevations we noticed trees and plants that didn’t grow anywhere else on our land. White poplar we knew were indicators of water and ours seemed to have self-seeded in the ‘acequia’ but there was nothing unusual in that. But in this location we found a wealth of fruiting trees such as walnut and apricot, quince and service tree, pomegranate and fig, olives and grapes. Clearly in this arid landscape water fed these trees and they were productive. Now the system is completely dry. Is it as a result of climate change?
To one side of the well and stretching up the narrow valley behind is the remnants of an old track, now eroded and partly washed away. Strangely, the track is disconnected from other ‘caminos’ and ends an abrupt stop. Here there are huge earth works, indeed there are sixteen terraces of increasing height and volume, starting below the ‘balsa’, or dam, and raising themselves up to an ultimate height of five meters half way up the mountain behind the well. Clearly the track was the access route for mules and men to build these huge earthworks by hand. But to what purpose, simply to level areas for cultivation?
Very recent events in Almería and Murcia have demonstrated the effects on the earth from very hot and summer dry Mediterranean climates such as these. The earth is baked dry and is as hard as stone.
Massive weather events like the recent rainfall, send rainwater from an enormous catchment area in the mountains hurtling down the ‘barrancos’ and ‘ramblas’ towards urbanisations at lower altitudes causing devastation.
‘Barrancos’ and ‘ramblas’ are the dry river systems that characterise this environment. They are the ephemeral systems that cut and define this landscape. ‘Barrancos and ‘ramblas’ are the escape valves for cyclical weather events once dissipated across the lower desert planes, now bottle necked through cities and beneath transport systems. Memories are short and the ever-increased covetousness for land either for agriculture or housing inevitably makes people vulnerable to disaster.
We observed that the small valley ahead of our well might be a ‘barranco’ but of lesser character, more of a linear depression. Google maps seemed to indicate a subterranean river observed by increased plant growth above ground. Clearly this line of increased verdancy ran down our system and beyond connecting to the Rambla del Cajar. So, our system was one of a few ‘headwaters’ to the Rambla del Cajar, in fact a ‘barranco’. Clearly our well tapped into subterranean waters in the ‘barranco’ bottom. Is the solution to dig the well deeper to access deeper subterranean waters?
Observation of the well told us that within a few meters, as little as three in fact, the well hits bedrock. Maybe the theory that it had stopped raining so much was true.
However, further observation tied all this scrutiny together. We don’t know exactly when the farm was abandoned by the people who lived here. Was it sudden or a slow progressive move? Certainly those who so enthusiastically re-visited Los Gázquez had nothing but fond memories of life here. Some were reduced to tears, so keenly felt was their nostalgia. But life was hard as a subsistence farmer and maybe external political interjection helped these people to move on to the factories in Barcelona and Tarragona and beyond to the vineyards of France.
We observed the terraces in the ‘barranco’ above the well. We admired their engineering, the physical effort to build such structures and then we realised. Crucially, at least six of the terraces above the well had been breached by old weather events. Rainwater, following storms, had cut fissures through some of the larger terraces so no longer did earthworks support that water. This was it, this was an old permaculture system. Neglect had rendered the system inoperable but basically the terraces interrupted the passage of rainwater across hard clay and built a subterranean reservoir suspended above impermeable bedrock. The fact that the terraces were breached meant that the water escaped as surface water.