San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Lakes Cocibolca, Xolotlán Surpass Historic Water Levels

GRANADA – The Inuit Kayak bar on the shore of Lake Cocibolca used to be a place where tourists could rent a kayak to paddle around on the lake, or sit in the shade under a tree to enjoy a cold beer.

Now tourists can do both at once – but not by plan.

Due to a record-breaking rise in the lake’s water level after two months of heavy rains, Lake Cocibolca has grown well beyond its historic shoreline and flooded multiple beach establishments along the coast. Lakefront bars and restaurants, such as the Inuit Kayak, which used to be some 10 meters away from water, are now partially submerged in the lake. Outdoor table-and-chair arrangements that used to be surrounded by flowers, are now lined with sandbags.

According to the most recent measu-rement by the Nicaraguan Institute for Territorial Studies (INETER), Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua) has risen to a modern-day record height of 32.91 meters above sea level – only 3 centimeters below its all-time record set in 1933. And the situation is even worse at Cocibolca’s smaller sister lake in Managua, Lake Xolotlán (or Lake Managua), which has risen to an unprecedented 42.73 meters above sea level.

before lake

Before: The lakeshore bar on Granada’s Lake Cocibolca pictured four years ago.

Last August, Managua was drenched by 15.4 inches of rain, according to INETER. That’s almost three times the average monthly amount of precipitation for Managua, which normally gets 5.8 inches of rain in August. The amount of rain that fell in September was only slightly less – still about twice as much as the monthly average.

Most of the rain that falls on the capital gets drained into lagoons or into Lake Xolotlán, which has now surpassed its previous high water mark set during the devastating deluge of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (NT, Sept. 30).

  As Lake Xolotlán continues to overflow, submerging dozens of lakeshore communities and displacing thousands of people in Managua, it has also funneled record amounts of water into the Tipitapa River, which serves as the natural channel leading from Lake Xolotlán to Lake Cocibolca, which sits at a lower elevation. As a result of the flooding, it’s now easier to navigate the downtown streets of Tipitapa in a canoe than on foot.

After lake

After: A lakeshore bar on Grenada’s Lake Cocibolca is submerged partially underwater as lake waters have risen more than two meters in the past two months.

Since the start of the rainy season last May, more than 70 Nicaraguans have been killed, and 8,960 have been evacuated to 129 shelters due to flooding, according to the government.

Though October has thus far offered a reprieve from the torrential rains experienced during the previous two months, it’s not all blue skies ahead, according to meteorologists.

“The worse is probably over, but because the lake levels are so elevated, even a regular amount of rain in the final weeks of October could cause more flooding,” said Marcio Baca, director of meteorology at INETER.

Plus, Baca noted, the worst of the hurricane season is yet to come. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch dumped as much rain on Nicaragua in one week in late October as has fallen on the country over the past two months.

Another lesson learned from Hurricane Mitch was how long it takes swollen lakes to recede to their normal levels after the rains.

Baca said it took nearly two years for the water levels of Xolotlán and Cocibolca to recede after Hurricane Mitch. Given the current rise in lake levels, it could take until 2012 or 2013 for the lakes to return to their previous levels, he predicted.

And that’s only if next year is a dry year. If 2011 is as wet as this year, the lakes’ levels could grow even higher, Baca warned.

Resilient Businesses

As the waters of Lake Cocibolca lap at the doorsteps of local lake-front businesses, Nicaraguan proprietors are responding the same way they always do during crisis: with resilience and good humor.

From throwing down sandbags and putting up chairs, to building alternative entrances and constructing retaining walls, Nicaraguan business owners have pushed forward with admirable determination.

“We’re waiting to see if the lake takes over completely and we have to evacuate the restaurant,” joked Alfonso Morales, a veteran waiter at the El Jobo restaurant at Granada’s Puerto Asese on Lake Cocibolca.

El Jobo used to get a decent flow of weekend traffic from people who keep their boats docked at the lake pier in front of the restaurant. But now everyone has taken their boats out of the water after the pier was completely submerged last month.

The evidence of the pier has been reduced to several lamp posts sticking strangely out of the lake like skeletal ruins of a sunken city. Fish now swim tauntingly close to the seafood restaurant’s kitchen in a flooded area that was once a garden. Business, Morales says, has dipped by 70 percent.

Across the cove at the popular Villas de Mombacho restaurant, owner José Roberto Sandino has taken a much more nature-be-damned response to the rising lake levels. As the rains intensified last month, Sandino sent construction workers out into the inclement conditions to build the lakefront retention wall an additional half-meter higher. He then filled in the land and raised his property a meter higher using 67 dump trucks full of sand and volcanic rock.

Now, as the lake waves lap only inches from the top block of his extended retention wall, it’s business as usual for the popular weekend eatery.

 “Everything is normal here,” he said. “The emergency is in Managua and in lower areas, not here. In Granada, everything is operating normally.”

In fact, Sandino said, his business has been more adversely affected by local media reports about lake flooding than by the actual rise in water levels. Recent reports in the daily El Nuevo Diario and on Channel 2 TV have scared tourists off more the flooding itself, he lamented.

“We could contain the lake, but we couldn’t contain the damage from the negative media reports,” he said.

Others, meanwhile, are looking entirely on the bright side of the situation.

Alejandro Estrada, a California-born Nicaraguan who recently moved to Granada and started Nica Action Sports, a water-sports company that offers wakeboarding, jet skis and kite surfing, says conditions have never been better for lake activity. The rise in the water level, he said, actually makes it safer to be on the lake in a boat because there’s less risk of hitting shallow rocks.

On a recent sunny Sunday, Estrada’s enthusiasm was as bright as the sun overhead.

“The sun is out. The water level is great. There’s no threat of rocks. It’s a great day to go out on the lake!” he said.

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