Rising citizen concern and press coverage of Tamarindo’s fecal contamination problem is forcing action and raising tensions in a coastal Guanacaste town best known for its laid-back, surfer’s vibe.
Last week, the Health Ministry shut down the Tamarindo Hostel, a small but popular hotel near the beach, citing it as one source of sewage that has put sections of Tamarindo’s ocean waters more than 7,000 times over limits considered acceptable by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
This week, ministry officials, together with the Municipality of Santa Cruz and the National University (UNA), announced they will conduct a second, comprehensive analysis to determine if initial measures have paid off.
In the meantime, increasing media attention, inside Costa Rica and out, is threatening the town’s halcyon image as the land of “endless summer.”
“We are already seeing reservations at local hotels being cancelled, and investors are becoming leery,” said Federico Amador, executive president of the Tamarindo Improvement Association, which represents the community.
The call for further testing emerged after representatives from Tamarindo met with Health Minister María Luisa Avila in San José last Wednesday.
Amador attended the meeting and said he is encouraged by the government’s attention.“
This is a whole different level of problem than we’ve seen in the past,” he said.
“They recognize it, and they have given us their support. They want to use Tamarindo as an example.”
Juan Luis Sánchez, director of the Health Ministry field office in Santa Cruz, told The Tico Times the action plan begins this week.
According to Sánchez, the ministry has begun distributing questionnaires to local homes, hotels and businesses, to begin the process of identifying contamination sources.
The questionnaires ask building owners to identify the age and status of their own sewage treatment facilities or septic tanks.
After the survey is complete, a team of inspectors will begin visiting and mapping potentially offending structures in Tamarindo, which he said could number as many as 250.
The hope is that one by one, polluters will float to the surface.
At that point, the government will issue them sanitary orders, requiring adequate sewage treatment.
If it doesn’t happen, hotels and restaurants, and even private buildings, could be closed, Sánchez said.
But the subject is a touchy one among health officials, including Sánchez, who was hesitant to release the names of hotels that had already received sanitary orders.
“We don’t want to create any bad blood with hotel owners. Right now, they want to work together with us,” he said.
Last week, Rodrigo Acuña, environmental inspector with the Health Ministry office in Santa Cruz, told The Tico Times the ministry would move quickly, rattling off hotels that would soon face sanitary orders.
He rescinded his statement the next day.
“We want to take this slowly,” he said. Sánchez agrees.
“It will be a very individualized process,” he said, holding out hope that the upcoming test would prove that initial awareness-raising measures have already improved the problem.
But some in town believe further tests will only help the government slip the problem under the table again.
“That’s my biggest concern: They’ll keep testing until the climate takes care of the problem. It’s going to be a nonissue in a matter of two weeks,” said Jerry Smith, a San Diego, California transplant who’s been a real estate broker in Tamarindo for almost 20 years.
Smith explained his theory that the root causes of the problem are inadequate septic systems that malfunction during the May to December rainy season. The region’s water table rises, he said, and floods out the shallow, poorly designed systems.
“This problem is nothing new. We’ve known about it for years,” he said. “We know to stay out of the water in October.”
He is skeptical of government support.
“They say they’re going to help, then they go back to San José, and do nothing at all. It’s all hollow political promises,” he said.
According to Darner Mora, director of the Water Testing Laboratory at the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA), Tamarindo is not considered one of the country’s urban areas, and as such, responsibility for building a sewage treatment plant there falls on the Municipality of Santa Cruz, not the central government.
“We are obligated to support these smaller communities, but not provide the funding for such projects,” he said.
Municipality Mayor Jorge Chavarría told The Tico Times that he has plans to build a sewage treatment facility, but would not provide a timetable.
When asked why it hadn’t been built yet, he replied that he’d only “been in office for a few months,” and that he could not speak for the previous administration.
“It is our responsibility, and we plan to do it,” he said.
Amador, while encouraged by the support, believes the private sector must initiate the project.
“We can’t just wait for the government to step in and build us a sewage treatment plant. They’ve already shown that they don’t have the funding or the resources. So we have to take what we can get and then do our part,” he said.
At a meeting last Friday, organized by the association and community business leaders, Amador said the will was there, but a solid proposal was not. Amador estimated an adequate treatment plant could cost between $2 million and $10 million.
“Nobody is going to invest without a good proposal. But we’re working on it,” he said.
In the meantime, swimmers take their chances in Tamarindo’s legendary surf.
Despite promises late last month to put signs warning swimmers and surfers against possible contamination, Sánchez, of the Health Ministry in Santa Cruz said the signs would remain “on hold pending results of the new tests.”
“We don’t want to be premature in putting up signs if there is no problem,” he said.