San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Sewage Disposal: You’re on Your Own

Sewage is a hot topic in Costa Rica. Last month, officials shut down the Occidental Allegro Papagayo, one of the country’s largest, most popular all-inclusive hotels when they discovered it dumping wastewater via hidden pipes into an estuary (TT, Feb. 1).

Now, the Health Ministry has said it will be turning its focus to the rest of the country – and not just hotels.

“It’s time to get our national territory in order, and clean up the mess we’ve made,” Health Minister María Luisa Avila said early this month. “That includes not just tourism projects, but anyone who is dumping sewage illegally.”

So, about that condominium you just bought in Tamarindo or Sámara, the one with sweeping ocean views and a sprawling master bathroom and throne to match: Do you really know where your sewage is going? If your first guess is the public sewer system, chances are good you’re wrong.

According to Darner Mora, director of water quality testing for the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA), only a handful of towns in Costa Rica benefit from a public system – not surprising in a country that grudgingly concedes 97% of wastewater enters rivers and streams untreated.

Most alarming for North American snowbirds flocking to Costa Rica’s tropical coastlines: Nearly all the towns that have sprouted where tourists congregate, including the northern Pacific beach communities of Tamarindo and Playas del Coco and Jacó, on the central Pacific coast, lack public sewage systems – which means responsibility, for now, falls on private citizens.

According to Jay Dover, a builder who tapped nails on the first house on Playa Langosta, south of Tamarindo, two decades ago, step one is asking.

“Most houses around here have private septic systems. Twenty years ago, that was fine. No one ever imagined the kind of development we’re seeing now,” he said.

Most of the traditional systems, which work well provided housing density isn’t too great, use holding tanks, trenches and leach fields that allow for evaporation of sewage.

Such systems are typical of what is commonly seen in rural North America.

Dover said larger-scale condominium and villa developments – typical of the new, more intensive development occurring along Costa Rica’s coastlines – have “no business” using such small-scale systems.

“These types of developments should have their own treatment plants,” he said.

Many don’t. And the government, forever strapped for cash, isn’t checking, so Dover and other responsible builders and consultants insist you should.

Step two, he said, is taking responsibility to create and ensure a good sewage disposal plan. According to Dover, that means a combined effort between the architect and the builder, to ensure that you’re system is adequate and sewage doesn’t wind up in a neighboring stream, backyard or, worse still, the ocean you hope to swim in.

There is no one-system-fits-all or simple solution – too much depends on such variables as location, water table, rainfall and soil types. But any sustainable method, experts say, requires planning and insistence on the part of the homeowner.

Tom Peifer, an ecological land use consultant in Guanacaste, said that a variety of other methods, including wastewater treatment wetlands, which allow green areas like marshes to do the work of filtering sewage, would suit small- and medium-sized tourist towns perfectly.

“There are other options. They just aren’t being considered right now,” he said.

He encourages homeowners to investigate alternative methods to ensure they aren’t polluting, but warns most will be blazing their own trail.

Both Peifer and Dover acknowledge that the government isn’t likely to go the easy or creative route. Right now, Dover said, the Municipality of Santa Cruz is upturning the main street in Tamarindo, installing a new road.

“It would be a great time to lay the pipes and framework for a sewage treatment plant, but they’re not doing it,”Dover said. “They’ll just have to tear it up again.”

AyA President Ricardo Sancho recently assured The Tico Times that a number of public and public-private sewage treatment facilities are in the works.

In San José, he said a large-scale sewage treatment facility is in the design stages, and could see construction start as early as 2009.

On the central Pacific coast, Puntarenas and Jacó are also on the list, as is Quepos-Manuel Antonio.

“This is a problem we’re taking very seriously, and we are making progress,” he said.

In the meantime, most sewage experts advise prospective homeowners not to wait for the government’s plans to unravel, but rather to explore options of their own, and ensure that they are sustainable and environmentally friendly.

“It’s really up to the person buying or building the house to ensure that a sewage system is designed responsibly,”Dover said.


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