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Low Water Level Could Affect Energy, Crops

The reservoir that serves as the heart of Costa Rica – pumping energy through the country’s electrical system and providing the aquatic lifeblood for the agricultural industry in the northwest province of Guanacaste – is weak.

Low rains attributed to the weather phenomenon El Niño have caused the lowest reserves in six years in LakeArenal, which could mean increased electricity bills for consumers down the road.

Water from the massive manmade lake tucked between two mountain ranges in northwest Costa Rica feeds three hydroelectric plants that provide about a third of the country’s energy.

After running through the dams, Arenal’s waters also flow into the Guanacaste agricultural industry’s irrigation system.Arenal’s low levels and scant rains in Guanacaste have also been cause for alarm in the region’s agricultural and livestock industries.

Scientists are predicting El Niño, which is caused by a heating of Pacific Ocean waters by one-half a degree Celsius for a fivemonth period or longer, will mean an extremely dry season for Costa Rica this year, particularly for the northwestern Guanacaste region (TT, Oct. 27)

In Costa Rica, hydroelectric plants account for approximately 80% of the energy infrastructure (TT, May 26).

Carlos Obregón, electricity manager for the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), reported that the water level in Arenal is 2.2 meters below average, a difference that can be seen on stretches of Arenal’s shores, some which are bald banks of mud.

ICE has capacity to replace lost hydroelectric power with other energy sources such as geothermal power, Obregón said in a statement.

He said ICE doesn’t see the need to ration electricity just yet, though he said the institute is urging consumers to be conservative in their electricity use.

He called Arenal water levels “considerably low, but not alarming,” a trend he said ICE expects at least through the dry season.

Obregón said electricity costs for consumers will depend on demand. Meanwhile, the daily La Nación reported that while hydroelectric energy is on the decrease this year, fuel-based electric energy – which is more costly to produce – has risen nearly 7%. Each kilowatt produced from fuel-based sources costs ¢0.11 more than a kilowatt produced by water-propelled turbines.

The water level of LakeArenal, a 28-year-old reservoir, has been decreasing since 2005, Obregón said. To offset energy production from non-hydroelectric plants in Costa Rica this year, ICE tapped into Arenal’s reserves more than usual to generate increased hydroelectric power from the three plants, which have capacity to generate 372 megawatts.

The waters that flow through the three hydroelectric plants then run into the network of irrigation canals that feed 25,000 hectares of crops in Guanacaste.

The unruly climate has meant calls to farmers and ranchers to tighten their aquatic belts. This year saw the driest September in Guanacaste in three decades, according to the National Meteorological Institute, with 40% less rain than the historical average. The rains in Guanacaste and Costa Rica have caused mix-ups in labor demands to harvest crops such as coffee, causing labor shortages (TT, Nov. 17)

Nelson Brizuela, director of the Arenal-Tempisque Irrigation District, told the daily La Nación the farming industry expects normal irrigation service through the first months of 2007. But he said toward the end of the dry season, if Arenal has lower reserves, ICE could use the lake waters only in peak hours, which could mean shortages for farmers.He said rice and sugarcane farmers rely heavily on irrigation waters, and could be the most affected.

Last month, the Production Ministry recommended that livestock farmers take measures to ensure their animals have enough to eat this dry season, expected to begin this month and last until April.



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