- Associated Press - Sunday, October 28, 2012

MADRID — Farmers drilling ever deeper wells over decades to water their crops likely contributed to a deadly earthquake in southern Spain last year, a recent study suggests.

The findings may add to concerns about the effects of new energy extraction and waste disposal technologies.

Nine people died and nearly 300 were injured when an unusually shallow magnitude-5.1 quake hit the town of Lorca on May 11, 2011. It was the country’s worst quake in more than 50 years, causing millions of dollars in damage to a region with an already fragile economy.

Using satellite images, scientists from Canada, Italy and Spain found the quake ruptured a fault running near a basin that had been weakened by 50 years of groundwater extraction in the area.

During this period, the water table dropped by 274 yards as farmers bored ever deeper wells to help produce the fruit, vegetables and meat that are exported from Lorca to the rest of Europe.

In other words, the industry that propped up the local economy in southern Spain may have undermined the very ground on which Lorca is built.

‘Like a sponge’

The researchers noted that even without the strain caused by water extraction, a quake likely would have occurred at some point.

But the extra stress of pumping vast amounts of water from a nearby aquifer may have been enough to trigger a quake at that particular time and place, said lead researcher Pablo J. Gonzalez of the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

Miguel de las Doblas Lavigne, a geologist with Spain’s National Natural Science Museum who has worked on the same theory but was not involved in the study, said the Lorca quake was in the cards.

“This has been going on for years in the Mediterranean areas, all very famous for their agriculture and plastic greenhouses. They are just sucking all the water out of the aquifers, drying them out,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “From Lorca to [the regional capital of] Murcia you can find a very depleted water level.”

Mr. de las Doblas said it was “no coincidence that all the aftershocks were located on the exact position of maximum depletion.”

“The reason is clearly related to the farming. It’s like a sponge you drain the water from: The weight of the rocks makes the terrain subside, and any small variation near a very active fault like the Alhama de Murcia may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, which is what happened,” he said.

He said excess water extraction was common in Spain.

“Everybody digs their own well, they don’t care about anything,” Mr. de las Doblas said. “I think in Lorca you may find that some 80 percent of wells are illegal.”

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