San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Water Wars: Year Saw Debates on Pollution

ONE of Costa Rica’s most essential, widely consumed resources – water – became a source of controversy on several occasions this year. A major fuel spill, arguments over public vs. private water consumption and a study that found contamination in drinking-water sources got academics, environmentalists, business owners and legislators all washed up in debate.


The peaceful Quaker community of Monteverde, in the Tilarán mountains, buzzed with uncharacteristic controversy in January when seven local business owners, who’d formed the company Rogumeca S.A., planned to construct a pipeline to draw water from the La Cuecha stream. Local protesters opposed the project by physically blocking construction, and claimed the project smacked of private control over a public resource. A month later, these opponents got their way when the Ombudsman’s Office ordered construction stalled until the validity of Rogumeca’s building permit was investigated.


Residents of the northwestern province of Guanacaste also expressed concern over their area’s water when a Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) study found a 67% shrinkage in the wetland area of this dry province since the early 1980s. Simultaneous growth of farming, golf courses and tourism have all placed increased demand on the area’s limited water sources in recent years, leaving government officials to decide how to allot this precious resource.


In April, a heated debate ensued over the results of a National University (UNA) study, which found levels of nitrates in excess of acceptable limits, as well as the presence of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in aquifers which provide drinking water to the Central Valley. The study, carried out from 1990-2002, found septic tanks and coffee plantations guilty of allowing these potentially dangerous elements to seep into drinking water sources in Heredia, north of San José.


While researchers called for prompt action to prevent further contamination, National Water and Sewage Institute (AyA) officials denied the accuracy of the study’s results, claiming researchers used incorrect standards to measure acceptable nitrate levels. Debate continued months after the study’s release and became public with national media attention and a series of letters back and forth between UNA scientists and AyA officials printed in national newspapers.


Meanwhile, oil from the country’s first significant fuel spill in September 2004 continued to seep into underground water sources in Barreal de Heredia, potentially endangering other Central Valley water sources. Water experts accused authorities of improperly managing the spill, which came from a local gas station, due to bureaucratic hassles that prevented them from being able to promptly declare a state of national emergency. Experts warned that the leak, if not controlled, could make water undrinkable for residents of Heredia and San José.


The National Emergency Commission (CNE) finally called for a state of emergency on Nov. 9, 14 months after the first discovery of the leak. This declaration made funds available for international experts to use costly high-tech pumps to clean up the gas and oil mixture below the 160-meter-deep reservoir.


Toward the year’s end, legislators and public officials discussed policies to address such dangers as contamination and water shortages. The Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE) signed a decree in September to ensure the protection of Costa Rica’s water by quantifying its value. That meant an effective increase in the cost of water by as much as 8,000% over the next ten years to create revenue for investment in the protection of the country’s watersheds.


Meanwhile, the Legislative Assembly worked on drafting a new water law to create tougher penalties for polluters and promote water conservation. The proposed law would replace the current, 60-year-old water law, which has become outdated with the growth of tourism, industry and agriculture.


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