After elevated levels of waste in the surf at Jacó’s oft-visited beach made national headlines last month, the Public Health Ministry swept through the central Pacific tourist town, reportedly issuing orders to more than 100 businesses to clean up their acts.
Recent water tests along the beach found fecal coliform bacteria as high as 1,100 and 2,400 parts per 100 milliliters of water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards advise against swimming in waters
with more than 400 parts per 100 mL.
It seemed a repeat of last year’s headlines, when water tests in Tamarindo, another heavily developed surf town farther north on the Pacific coast, found fecal coliform counts soaring as high as 3.1 million. Blame there fell on local businesses, many of which were dumping their untreated sewage into local waterways and were subsequently shut down.
But the crux of the problem in Jacó, say many who know the community well, are squatter settlements that have grown up on the edge of two rivers feeding directly out into the waves.
“There are people dumping their black water straight into the river. It’s the municipality’s responsibility to find housing for them,” said Peter Van Hussen, owner of Canciones del Mar hotel and a resident of Jacó. “While the focus is on the business world, that we are dumping everything in the sea, it’s more a social problem.”
On the QuebradaSecaRiver, dozens of wooden shacks crowd the edge of the water, which runs low when it’s not raining and is spanned by a bridge of single wooden planks balanced over rocks. The settlement is known as El Hueco (The Hole) and is both feared and disparaged by those who know of it – mostly police and local government.
Hunkered down below the banks of the river, the shantytown is a few blocks from Jacó’s center, which bustles with thousands of visitors during the tourism high season. Out of sight of the tourists, El Hueco is a hub of drugs, violence and fences for stolen goods.
Marvin Elizondo, mayor of Garabito, the canton seated in Jacó, said this week the municipality has purchased toilets for the squatter settlements and is preparing to install them and septic tanks as an emergency measure while he goes about the drawnout process of trying to relocate the mostly Nicaraguan immigrant community.
The municipality is looking to exchange valuable beachfront land it owns for a fivehectare swath of property just on the other side of the adjacent Costanera coastal highway, where it plans to build a low-income housing project. The mayor said the municipality is going to raise about 250 homes with help from the Housing Ministry and the National Housing Mortgage Bank.
“We should buy the property this year,” Elizondo said.
The municipality has already purchased another five-hectare property in Lagunillas, further north of Jacó, where it is looking to build some 265 low-income homes beginning this year.
The mayor acknowledged, however, that the pollution problem is not entirely the fault of the squatters. Earlier this year, the municipality discovered hidden pipes coming from a local condominium and hotel complex that were dumping raw sewage into a small stream.
“The municipality has its responsibility, but one of the principal problems we have is the lack of support from the health minister and the executive president of the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA),” Elizondo said.
The mayor has criticized the Public Health Ministry for not keeping check on whether the small sewage treatment plants in area hotels and businesses, and the septic systems used for many homes, are properly functioning.
Health Minister María Luísa Avila did not return several messages left by The Tico Times this week.
Elizondo has long harped on AyA for not prioritizing the construction of a sewer system and wastewater treatment plant for the rapidly expanding town. Early this year, however, it announced it would be doing just that.
Preliminary studies and designs for both a treatment plant and sewer system for Jacó are more than halfway completed, AyA said earlier this month. Final plans for the $4 million project are expected by the end of the year.