LIBERIA, Guanacaste – A controversial $300 million plan to quench the thirst of burgeoning coastal development in the country’s driest region would draw from the already dwindling reservoir of LakeArenal.
Water from the inland manmade lake would be sent more than 100 kilometers to the coast of the northwest province of Guanacaste after it has flowed through three dams that together make up Costa Rica’s largest hydroelectric project.
According to government officials, enough water for 300,000 people would be sent to fast-developing beach communities from Tamarindo north to the PapagayoPeninsula, home to some of Costa Rica’s most lavish resorts.
Not only is LakeArenal’s water a principal source of electricity in a country with problems producing enough to meet growing demands, it also irrigates an estimated 28,000 hectares of rice, melon, sugarcane and other Guanacaste crops.
Supporters say the project won’t affect the agricultural industry’s supply and is the only way to keep up with the breakneck growth of Guanacaste’s “Gold Coast,” where new projects spring up constantly amid the tropical dry forest typical of a region that has long been demanding more water.
Critics say Lake Arenal’s water level is already too low, and they don’t like the fact that Costa Rica’s most vital resource is being used to cater to mostly foreign investors in the tourism industry.
“It’s not the coastal communities that need water. Who needs water is the hotels and condos and a long list of business projects,” said Gadi Amit, president of the Guanacaste Brotherhood Association, which has long championed environmental causes in the area.
The National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) has asked the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) for $50 million in financing to begin the planning and design stages of the gargantuan 10-year project, according to Herman Araya, AyA’s interim director of the Guanacaste region. The project would require infrastructure of pumps, pipes and water treatment plants to move potable water westward to the beaches.
Bank representative Evangelina Barquero told The Tico Times the bank is studying the project’s feasibility.
Water from Arenal is already being sent to Guanacaste farmers via huge irrigation canals. Araya said the plan would reroute water from the WestCanal in Cañas and send it to a planned treatment plant in Filadelfia before forwarding it to the town of Santa Cruz and the beaches.
Araya claims the project wouldn’t affect farmers who draw water from the same canal. Because rice is a water-intensive crop, The Tico Times asked National Rice Association (CONARROZ) director Carlos Arevalo his opinion on the matter this week, but he said he hadn’t heard of the project.
Guanacaste Water Woes
Water resources stretched thin have caused not only water rationing in some thriving Guanacaste beach communities such as Playa Hermosa, but have also contributed to nationwide electricity rationing and unscheduled blackouts (TT,May 4).
Guanacaste has felt the pinch as much or more than any other region.
Araya, 53, is the man responsible for meeting the water needs of the parched region.
During a recent interview, Araya scrambled around his AyA office on a sunny Guanacaste afternoon, the day after a lightning storm in Liberia caused the institution’s computer system to go down.
“Our systems are planned for steady growth. But tourism development has created a great necessity for water,” said Araya, who holds a civil engineering degree from the University of Costa Rica (UCR). He added it is the state’s job to catch up with the growth, not slow it down.
Araya stepped in as the interim regional director in March to replace Carlos Leiva, who was suspended along with three other AyA officials while an internal panel investigates them for their involvement in granting 5,000 future water connections to a company with developments in Ocotal and Playas del Coco in exchange for private expansion of the region’s aqueduct.
The company, Cocowater S.A., was accepting advance reservations and taking $800 payments for water-availability documents, which are required to obtain construction permits, even though the aqueduct hadn’t been built, something the AyA has prohibited since 2001 (TT, March 16).
Sandy Shaw, secretary of the Arenal area environmental group Fuentes Verdes, said the group has been “worried” about the prospects of such a project ever since last July, when
President Oscar Arias promised during a visit to the NicoyaPeninsula to provide beach development with water from LakeArenal.
The lake is not a renewable resource, and there are major concerns about the amount of sedimentation in the water caused by erosion, she said in a statement.
“Add increasing sedimentation to less rainfall and the useful life of the lake as a producer of energy and irrigation comes to an end,” she said, adding that the lake’s level is at a historic low.
Amit called the government’s mentality “backwards.”
“Growth has to be planned. If you don’t have a basis for growth, it’s bad planning. If there’s no water, you can’t build,” he said.
The business weekly El Financiero has reported that the region is expected to receive some $2.1 billion in tourism investments in the next three years, which is about a 10th of the country’s gross domestic product.
Primarily U.S. investors are expected to put up some 35 tourism projects, mainly hotels and luxury real estate developments, in this period, the weekly reported.
The booming region, spangled with luxury resorts such as the Four Seasons, is the heart of Costa Rica’s $1.6 billion tourism industry.
Amit’s group says no calculations, studies or real projections exist to determine what the region’s water shortage will amount to if only current projects already under construction develop in their totality.
The group filed a lawsuit in March demanding that all construction be stopped in its tracks until inhabitants’ water rights are secured. The lawsuit, accepted by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), demands a moratorium on new building permits and a closure of all construction projects without permits in an area where a recent study found one in four developments is illegal (TT,March 16).
Upon accepting the case for review, the Sala IV ordered AyA to come up with a plan to confront Costa Rica’s water problem (TT,March 30). The lawsuit insists that new investment projects requiring voluminous amounts of water to supply large pools, spas and golf courses should be required to finance and operate desalinization plants that would draw from the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Amit criticized the fact that the state has been increasingly relying on private investors to pay for water infrastructure after development has begun. He mentioned a recent study that found despite Guanacaste’s tourism growth, the province has one of the worst tax collection rates in the country. All taxes collected in Guanacaste last year didn’t add up to $15 million – less than 1% of taxes collected nationwide, according to a recent Central Bank study.
The Tico Times contacted the Guanacaste Chamber of Commerce for comment on this story but didn’t receive a response as of press time.
Araya agrees that development in the region “has advanced at a rate the state didn’t expect,” and said the country will increasingly rely on private investors to fund water infrastructure.
In the community of Playas del Coco, parts of which have dealt with water rationing in recent months, tourism industry investors are putting up $8 million to finance a 5,000-square-meter storage and distribution system that could be complete by next summer and nearly triple the area’s water supply.
Carlos Arroyo, general manager of the Mapache Group, was one of the developers to benefit from the deal. The daily La Nación fingered Mapache in an investigative report earlier this year for having begun construction projects without proper permits (TT, March 16). The report prompted the AyA investigation for which former AyA director Leiva was suspended, though AyA still plans to carry out the project.
“I’m suspended because we wanted to start a project in Playas del Coco financed totally by investors, but some didn’t like that idea,” Leiva told The Tico Times, adding, “AyA doesn’t have a budget for these projects without developers. If we don’t get the financing, Guanacaste will lose tourism, its golden egg.”
In Playa Hermosa, AyA is talking with an investment group with plans to finance a $650,000 distribution system over the next two years that would connect the community to a nearby well and avoid further water rationing in summer months.
Bernal Soto, manager of the National Subterranean Water and Irrigation Service (SENARA), said there is enough water in Costa Rica to sustain growth, but there’s not enough infrastructure.Which is why SENARA, responsible for providing water to the nation’s farmers, has plans to buff up the region’s water storage and distribution infrastructure before the $300 million project would be built.
The agency has a plan to build within a year a small dam on the Corobicí River to boost the West Canal’s capacity by nearly 10%, as well as a larger $18 million, four-year plan to create an 800-hectare lake in Bagaces to store up to 80,000 cubic meters of water.
Soto said those projects, which would also provide drinking water, still need funding, and he expects the money to come from tourism developers.
Both Soto and AyA’s Araya agreed private developers are willing to finance much-needed systems because they need the water.
Investors “will construct this infrastructure and hand it over to us. There’s no conflict of interest because we’re managing it,” Araya said.