Mundaka is one of Europe’s finest waves. The world famous left hander spins its way past the quiet Basque countryside, where all the elements have come together just right. Its long walls are sculpted into near-perfection by a strong northwest swell, a light south wind, and a sandbar beneath the surface that just so happens to be created by river situated perfectly to pump just the right amount of sand into just the right places. It’s almost too good to be true. And it’s in serious danger.
A beach restoration project plans on removing 40,000 cubic meters of sand from the sandbar. Surfers, of course, aren’t too happy about it. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve never surfed it. It doesn’t matter if you went once and you were snaked, or if you experienced tension in the lineup,” said Sancho Rodriguez, Director of the Surffilmfestibal. “It doesn’t matter if you are from the village, from Getxo, Algorta, Giputxi. If you are in the Federation or not. Every surfer needs to rally together so the institutions feel we are united in taking care of our coastline, knowing that we represent thousands of people and jobs in the surf industry. The global surf community will stand with the Basque Country against any activity that risks the few world class waves we’ve got.”
Forty thousand cubic meters (nearly 132,000 cubic feet) of sand is a lot. So where is all of going to be transferred to? Most of Europe was ravaged by winter storms last year; the ferocity of a few of them did major damage and brought massive waves to the Atlantic coastline. And just on the other side of the Mundaka River is a little beach called Laida, which is normally visited by over 200,000 tourists every year–but now there’s no beach. Come high-tide, the edges of the ocean lap at a shoreline void of sand. And those 200,000 some-odd travelers bring their cash, spending almost five million Euros annually. That’s a lot of coin that might not be flowing into the Spanish economy, so it makes sense that the government is so bent on finding a solution. The problem is that their solution affects what might be the biggest surf-tourism attraction in all of Europe. Now, according to Sancho Rodriguez it’s become an “surfers vs. everyone else” scenario.
“I understand that there is a conflict of interest,” he said in an email.” Different parts have to coexist and that Ibarrangelu needs a dry beach, but I don’t think we have to confront the income generated by the wave of Mundaka against the income of the beach in Ibarrangelu. Mundaka is probably one of the biggest assets to the European surf industry, of all the Basque Country.”
Since the project is classified by the government as urgent, there was no study done on what environmental impact it might have. But if history (and common sense) have anything to say about it, the wave won’t be anything like its former self. Over a decade ago, a dredging project removed around 250,000 cubic meters from an estuary to move a newly built ship out to sea. The dredge changed the direction of the currents and led to the ultimate erosion of the sandbar that is largely responsible for Mundaka’s perfection. A year later, in 2005, the Billabong Pro Mundaka was cancelled, because it’s hard to hold a surf contest where there isn’t a wave. And according to Tourismo Mundaka, the wave brings anywhere from 5000 to 15,000 surfers to the tiny town, while the contest brings somewhere around 30,000. That’s a lot of dollars from a moving lump of water.
Thankfully, after a few years, nature took its course. By 2006, Mundaka was showing signs of its former glory, and it was deemed healthy enough to host the contest again. It’s a difficult position for both surfers and non-surfers–how much is a wave worth? To surfers, it’s priceless. To non-surfers, it’s worth less than the beach at Laida. And to the government, it’s money that does the talking–which, to some, makes sense. When it comes down to it, what’s more important: the economic well-being of a tourism-based region, or a wave? If the beach brings in more tourism dollars than the wave, it’s simple math. So if nature will deposit sand on the bar in a few years and the wave will return, is having the beach and the tourism dollars worth not having a wave for a few years?
There are, however, options that would appease both sides, keeping the sandbar under the wave and replacing the sand on the popular tourist beach. Pedro Liria proposed a few solutions that make sense, at least to a person not all that familiar with the science behind river and ocean currents. One of his ideas is to construct an artificial sand beach, while the other is to help the sand’s natural flow by creating channels that would direct it to Laida. Over time, the sand would make its way back to the beach, and the sandbar would remain relatively unaffected, at least according to him.
But it looks fairly certain that work will begin as the government intends. It already has, in fact. So now all that remains is to wait and see what affect the removal of the sand will have on Spain’s most famous wave. And while no one can know for sure until the waves start to pump… or they don’t.