San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Poás Development Worries Neighbors Downhill Who Strive to Protect Their Water

GRECIA, Alajuela – Water consumersliving in this northwest CentralValley coffee town downstream from PoásVolcano National Park are successfullyleading efforts to stop the evolving trendof private home construction inside thepark.Worried the septic tanks and chemicaluse that come along with such developmentwill contaminate the aquifers thatfeed their water sources, residents herehave helped persuade the town’sMunicipal Council to temporarily halt thegranting of construction permits on privateproperty within the park and a nearbynature reserve.Likewise concerned about the constructionof homes inside the park isRicardo Valerio, director of the CentralVolcanic Range Conservation Area, part ofthe Ministry of the Environment andEnergy (MINAE).AT least three homes have been constructedrecently within the national parkboundaries, and more just outside. Afourth may be within the park, althoughadministrators admit they are not sure if itfalls inside the boundaries.But this handful of homes is not thereason Valerio and water administratorshave jumped to action.They are the first constructions on alarge property inside the park that has beensubdivided into at least 60 lots, which varyin size from 1,800 square meters to fourhectares.Although the contested property is withinnational park boundaries, it is in privatehands because it has not been expropriatedby the state, Valerio explained.Approximately 1,800 hectares of the 6,000-hectare park are privately held.Park officials are seeking internationalhelp to expropriate this property.According to a recently released studyby the public Universidad Nacional(UNA), Poás took in more than $600,000in park entrance fees in 2002 and attracted29% of all national park visitors in CostaRica. These funds are not directly reinvestedin the park and instead go to thefederal government.The pressure to expropriate was notimminent until now, Valerio said,because aside from milk farms and cattleranches, the private property has littleinfrastructure.“With the subdivision comes construction,”Valerio said. “This has us veryworried.”OFFICIALS from the TechnicalSecretariat of the Environment Ministry(SETENA), which grants the environmentalOK required for many developmentprojects, have told The Tico Times theycannot prohibit construction on privateproperty, only evaluate its environmentalviability (TT, April 22).However, Valerio said he has workedout an agreement that any constructionprojects seeking SETENA’s environmentalapproval within the conservation area hedirects, must pass through his office.“We are not going to allow one singleconstruction,” he said.Valerio said he is worried about thepotential impact of development on biologicaland geological processes in the park,which shelters an active volcano, as well ason the continuity of ecosystems and speciesmigration, particularly of birds.He also recognizes the threat to neighbors’drinking water.“Sixty lots means 60 houses and thatmeans 60 septic tanks all in the samearea,” he said.SEVERAL potable water sources begin near the subdivision project, includingthree rivers, according to GuidoGonzález, president of the Union of GreciaAssociations United for Health and theEnvironment (UNAGUAS), an umbrellagroup for members of 17 rural communityaqueducts in the Grecia area.At a minimum, the 75,000 residents ofGrecia would be affected if this water werecontaminated at the source, according toGonzález.“All of the water here comes from thevolcano. Everyone here knows the sourceof his or her water,” he said.In many rural areas throughout thecountry, communities take responsibilityfor supplying their own water throughcommunity-run aqueducts, rather thanbeing supplied by the National Water andSewer Institute (AyA).They often tap nearby springs and pipeit directly into their neighborhoods.“SPRING water is much purer thanriver water, which is more susceptible tocontamination,” said Oscar Vargas, treasurerof UNAGUAS. “River water, like that drankin San José, has to be highly chlorinated.”Though the earth is able to filtersmall amounts of contaminants in springwater, even one house built near anaquifer that feeds these springs can contaminatethe water used by thousands,Vargas continued.UNAGUAS and its member aqueductsare leading the way in Grecia in preventionof pollution and contamination near itswater sources (see sidebar).“The efforts made by the aqueducts arevery impressive, but the ultimate goal is protectingthe water higher up,” González said.The community leader is obviouslypleased with the Grecia MunicipalCouncil’s decision last month to advise themunicipality’s planning department togrant no construction permissions for projectswithin Poás Volcano National Park orthe nature reserve that lies between thepark and Grecia.WHILE construction is halted,UNAGUAS members are anticipating astudy of the area’s aquifers, which areunderground layers yielding ground waterfor wells and springs.“It’s not fair for us say, ‘don’t constructthere’ if we don’t know for sure whetheraquifers will be contaminated,” Vargas said.The Municipal Council’s budget commissionhas approved ¢8 million ($17,000)for a hydro-geological study of the area’saquifers. While Vargas says this is notenough to cover the costs of a study, themunicipality is hoping to work with graduateand doctorate students at theUniversity of Costa Rica (UCR) to completethe study. The full council must stillapprove the funding.A time frame of when the study couldstart or how long it will take has not beendetermined.

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