San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gov’t: Sardinal Water Adequate; Critics Balk

SARDINAL, Guanacaste – The Sardinal aquifer has the capacity to sustain the northwestern province, according to a new preliminary study by the government.

The study found the aquifer can supply up to 1,145 liters of water per second, more than enough to meet the needs of Guanacaste’s 350,000 inhabitants.

The study’s findings are a victory for the 22 businesses that are funding the construction of an $8 million aqueduct that would transport water from the aquifer to coastal development projects 9 kilometers away.

Last May, community protesters halted the aqueduct project, which then was almost 75 percent complete, claiming the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) never completed a sustainability study of the aquifer.

The water pipeline was slated to pump at least 176 liters of water per second to the Ocotal, Coco and Hermosa communities, where the local aquifer can no longer support new real estate growth.

In the last two weeks, both the Comptroller General and the Ombudsman’s Office have released guidelines to help steer the conflict toward a resolution while protecting the interests of the local community.

In response, the government will allow interested parties up to one month to respond to the 1,000-plus-page preliminary study that was hand-delivered here on Sunday. The Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry also opened an office here on Monday to field comments on the report.

Some local residents already have expressed skepticism. “They studied how much water there is, but that’s not enough,” said Gadi Amit, a local activist. “We need more complete studies, zoning plans and sewage treatment systems.” Amit worries the coastal areas, which lack sewage treatment, among other services, cannot support the growth the water would fuel.

Based on the study’s results, a multiinstitutional government water committee proposed to initially pump 70 liters of water per second for a two year period while experts monitor the aquifer’s sustainability.

The aquifer is currently being pumped at 320 liters per second, about 28 percent of its estimated recharge rate.

“I am satisfied with the study’s findings in terms of confirming the availability of water,” said José Antonio Muñoz, president of the group funding the aqueduct project.

“But I am not satisfied with the project’s delays.” He estimated the delays will raise the cost of the project by 15 to 25 percent.

“The delays will create additional costs for developers,” said Francisco Alvarado, of the Mapache Group, a real estate company that invested in the aqueduct, “and it sets a bad example for foreign investors.” While the majority of the aqueduct investors are foreign, it is unclear which projects will depend on the aqueduct for water because the list of aqueduct escrow contributors has not been made public.

“Some (development) projects haven’t started yet. And who loses if they leave? Eventually, the people of Sardinal will be jobless,” Alvarado said.

According to Emel Rodríguez, director of the Tempisque Conservation Area, 26.5 percent of employed Sardinaleños work in the hotel or restaurant industry.

But for Amit, the problems run much deeper than the costs of delayed development.

“If the government doesn’t want to follow the law – if they won’t recognize the errors they committed and won’t sanction the officials who committed them – why would the community want to follow the law?” he said.

Amit claims AyA issued faulty water availability maps, which were used by developers to obtain building permits.

“Initially, AyA issued us water availability maps for the Coco aquifer. Later, they informed us that they were no longer valid,” explained Alvarado. “The rhythm of development here is accelerated, and the government doesn’t have the resources or funds for infrastructure to keep pace.”

Late last month, the Comptroller General’s Office issued a scathing report of AyA’s water management in Guanacaste (see related story).

Following the month-long review period, the government committee is expected to make substantial revisions to the preliminary report. A high committee comprised of Environment Minister Roberto Dobles, AyA President Ricardo Sancho, and National Groundwater, Irrigation and Drainage Service Manager Bernal Soto will review the revisions and issue a final report to the local municipality, which will decide whether to renew the aqueduct construction permits.

“The development of the north Pacific cannot be stopped,” said Alvarado, referring to nationwide real estate growth that has spurred hotel, condominium and resort construction in tourism hotspots over the last decade, particularly along the northwestern Pacific.

The release of the preliminary study did little to squelch community protests that voiced a general mistrust of the government throughout the presentation. At the end of his presentation on Sunday, Dobles had to be escorted out of the Sardinal public school by police as local residents chanted, “Get out, Minister!” and “Water cannot be sold. It must be defended!”


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