Costa Rica’s National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) has annulled the environmental viability permits for construction of the controversial Sardinal aqueduct project in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
A resolution issued by SETENA on Thursday, May 20, claimed that no studies exist to sufficiently demonstrate that the “Improvements to the El Coco-Ocotal Aqueduct” project would not harm community water supplies. The ruling ordered the Municipality of Carrillo to “immediately paralyze” work on the project.
On Monday, May 24, municipal officials notified Meco Builders S.A., the company contracted to build the infrastructure, to stop construction. By Tuesday afternoon, all work had ceased.
SETENA’s resolution comes more than four years after the Costa Rican Water Institute (AyA) authorized the project and almost 16 months after the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ruled that the project was unconstitutional.
The motion is the latest episode in a long history marred by violent protests, questionable permits, suspensions, injunctions, reports and resolutions. It is a triumph for the projects’ opponents and a snag for developers.
The El Coco-Ocotal project would draw water through a pipeline from an existing aquifer under the village of Sardinal, located less than 10 kilometers inland from El Coco (see map). The water would flow into a tank in El Coco and then continue to a second cistern in Ocotal in order to feed tourist and residential development in the two Guanacaste beach towns.
A group of nearly two dozen developers pooled $8 million in 2006 to fund the project and agreed to relinquish the infrastructure and its operation to AyA once completed. In exchange, AyA would provide 5,000 water connections to an area lined with beach condominiums and hotels.
But Sardinal resients and environmentalists claim that extracting water from the Sardinal aquifer would cause further water shortages in parched Guanacaste neighborhoods.
“We have enough water problems here as it is,” said Gadi Amit, president of the Guanacaste Brotherhood Association, a sustainable growth organization that has filed several lawsuits against the project. “It has been clearly demonstrated that this project does not have adequate studies to guarantee that it won’t harm community water supplies.”
SETENA’s recent resolution is based on the Sala IV’s January 2009 recommendation to “cancel the environmental clearance granted to the aqueduct” and “execute technical studies that irrefutably demonstrate the environmental feasibility of the project.”
The Sala IV also ruled that the National Groundwater, Irrigation and Drainage Service (SENARA) must draw up a hydrological blueprint of the area that charts possible pollution threats to the Sardinal aqueduct, and needs to install mechanisms that measure water levels at the aquifers’ recharge zones.
Additionally, the court ruled that SETENA must complete an “environmental fragility” study that weighs the risks of water contamination that the project could cause.
SETENA’s resolution stipulates that, in order for construction of the El Coco Ocotal project to continue, the private companies who sponsored its development must present SETENA with a new “evaluation document” – an assessment of the environmental impact of the project – and complete the studies ordered by the Sala IV’s ruling.
But some of these studies could face long delays since the governmental institutions that must execute many of the analysis, namely SENARA and SETENA, are low on resources.
“These aren’t studies you can do from one day to the next day, and at the moment there is no money to complete them,” Amit said.
Perhaps due to this, on Tuesday, the developers backing the project appealed the decision to SETENA to request that the institute revoke the resolution.
Carlos Arroyo, general manager of Mapache, one of the first developers to begin building on a large scale in El Coco, said that developers have waited too long for water connections and that the constant delays are hurting development and employment.
“These development companies have their hands tied,” he said. “Many projects haven’t started and others have been paralyzed halfway through. This is detrimental to the people in Sardinal who would be working on the projects in El Coco.”
Arroyo said he did not wish to discuss the environmental viability studies because he is “not a technical expert,” but he blasted opponents of the new aqueduct and pipeline claiming that “there is water for all of Guanacaste.”
The lawyer for the El Coco-Ocotal aqueduct funders, José Antonio Muñoz, did not respond to several messages from The Tico Times this week and told the Spanish daily La Nación that his clients would not discuss the issue.
The Tico Times also attempted to contact Sonia Espinoza, the director of SETENA, but did not receive a response by press time.
Municipal Permits and Zipped Lips
The project is roughly 80 percent complete, according to locals and developers, and has the environmental viability permits it needs from the CarrilloMunicipality to build the pipeline and the new tanks.
Despite the Sala IV’s ruling that the project violates Article 50 of Costa Rica’s Constitution and a scathing 2008 report from the Ombudswoman’s office that condemned the new aqueduct, the municipality granted viability permits for the project in October 2009. Work commenced in January 2010.
SETENA’s recent resolution annuls these permits and halts all construction on the project based on the provisions of the Organic Environmental Law, which requires compliance with all SETENA resolutions.
The same law also requires all projects to have an “adequate environmental impact study” before a municipality grants viability permits. The Sala IV, SETENA and the Ombudswoman’s office have all ruled that these studies do not exist.
The Tico Times called the CarrilloMunicipality several times this week for a comment about the permits, but the mayor’s secretary informed the newspaper that the official cannot comment on the issue because the municipality is “in transition.”
Several phone calls to the building permit department at the CarrilloMunicipality did not yield results by press time.
On Tuesday, after the municipality ordered Meco Builders S.A. to halt construction, Carlos Cantillo, the mayor of Carrillo, told the daily La Nación that, “We are surprised. The municipality gives the permits and SETENA annuls them.”
The Tico Times requested a comment from the new environment minister, Teófilo de la Torre, but ministry press officials said he was out of the country until Friday.