San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Lack of Planning Dams Up Sardinal Project

In the fight over a pipeline that would draw drinking water from Sardinal, a small inland village in northern Guanacaste, to feed uncontrolled coastal development, two new reports say the project lacks basic studies showing it won’t leave Sardinal dry.

The National Subterranean Water and Irrigation Service (SENARA), the agency in charge of the country’s aquifers, and the University of Costa Rica (UCR) School of Geology both came to that conclusion after reviewing studies provided by the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA), the government office overseeing the project.

The $8 million aqueduct, almost threequarters finished, would pipe water from Sardinal nine kilometers to the Pacific beach towns of Playas del Coco and Ocotal, where the local water supply has already been sapped by real estate and tourism development.

The project is being funded and carried out by developers from Coco and Ocotal, who have been unable to get new construction permits without new sources of water.

Once completed, the aqueduct would be handed over to AyA and become part of the public infrastructure.

Following recent community protests that turned violent, the local government last week ordered the aqueduct’s construction suspended, saying AyA has not presented studies showing how much water was actually available in the aquifer (TT, May 30).

Despite the order, area residents reported that construction continued on the site where new water storage tanks would be built.

“Today I went to see, and they are still working on the water tanks,” Gadi Amit, a member of the Guanacaste Brotherhood Association and an outspoken critic of the project, said Monday. “It is a slap in the face to the (municipality’s) orders and the people, and to Costa Rica. Investors are not above the law.”

The pipeline to Coco and Ocotal would pull about 175 liters per second from the Sardinal aquifer, more than 10 times the community’s current usage rate. That water would be sent up to the storage tanks on a hill above Coco, and then piped into the local aqueducts for Coco and Ocotal.

The project would also draw an additional 19 liters per second from the Coco aquifer by digging three new wells.

According to the report from SENARA, the Coco aqueduct currently provides 49 liters of water per second to 8,491 people.

With the expansion of the aqueduct with new water from Sardinal and the new wells in Coco, water availability would increase nearly fivefold to 242.8 liters per second, enough for more than 41,900 people.

This, however, would only meet the growing demand through 2010, when it would be necessary to find yet more sources of water, SENARA said.

Despite the booming growth in Playas del Coco, the town has neither a zoning plan nor a sewer system. The AyA’s internal auditor, Alcides Vargas, in a March 28 memo reviewing the aqueduct project, warned AyA Executive Director Ricardo Sancho that the increase in construction unleashed with the new water availability would put Coco’s existing, “highly vulnerable” aquifer at risk of sewage contamination.

The SENARA study also echoes concerns raised by the auditor and protestors that AyA skipped over technical studies of just how much water can actually be drawn from the Sardinal aquifer without putting it at risk of collapse.

Sancho had first reportedly told residents they were assured water for at least 20 years, and then said at least 50 years. Last week, as criticism increased, Sancho appeared at a press conference beside Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias and said the new aqueduct would only use “10 percent of the available water in the area.”

A statement released by AyA the same day said that figure was based on “various technical studies” showing “abundant water” in the region.

However, the SENARA report said AyA’s studies “had an insufficient level of research,” considering the “intensive exploitation” the new project would entail.

SENARA said the research lacked a direct study of the Sardinal aquifer, and depended instead on existing information from aquifers in the surrounding area.

SENARA listed a series of flaws in AyA’s research before concluding that the institute does not have enough information to know what effect the project will have on Sardinal’s aquifer.

The UCR School of Geology also looked over AyA’s reports. The school released a statement Monday saying that, after examining the research, it concluded “a detailed study on the Sardinal aquifer” showing the water availability there “does not exist.”

Both reports came at the request of Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada, who has been outspoken in calling for the project to be suspended.

Quesada joined a suit filed by the Guanacaste Brotherhood Association with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) demanding the project be halted. This week, the court announced it had also taken up a similar suit filed by the Citizen Action Party (PAC).

“Stop the construction process until we know the actual conditions of our aquifers,” said José Rosales, the PAC legislator who filed the suit.

Sardinal residents who have protested the aqueduct say their water is being taken for private interests.

“We can be without electricity, without light. You just light a candle,” said Marielos Bustos, a leader of the Sardinal protests. “But water?”


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