Government health and tourism officials this week and next will determine the fate of Tamarindo’s upcoming tourist season, as concerns about sewage in the ocean continue to fester.
Authorities from the Health Ministry this week demanded that the municipality install signs warning swimmers and surfers of the dangers along this popular northwest Pacific beach, and further tests will be conducted as soon as heavy rains stop, said Health Minister María Luisa Avila.
Last month, studies released by the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) found all 13 sites tested along the beach exhibited high levels of fecal contamination – a direct result, scientists believe, of runoff from the booming Guanacaste beachfront town (TT, Oct. 26).
According to the study, one oceanfront site contained 460,000 fecal coliforms per 100 milliliters (mL), another, a whopping 3.1 million.
By comparison, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards advise against swimming and bathing in waters with more than 400 fecal coliforms per 100 mL.
According to Juan Luis Sánchez, medical director for the Ministry of Health field office in Santa Cruz, the problem is obvious, the solution less so.
“The source of this contamination is camouflaged in a maze of pipes, drains and private treatment plants,” he said.
Sánchez said the ministry, together with AyA technicians, will run a chemical dye through the pipes of various hotels and restaurants in town to determine the source and unravel the mystery.
But until the rains stop, he said, even step one is on hold.
“The heavy rains dilute the dye, and make the source impossible to track,” he said.
In the meantime, he said his office ordered the Municipality of Santa Cruz to install signs along the beach, warning swimmers and surfers of potential illness from fecal contamination, which can include such menacing diseases as staph infections, typhoid fever, hepatitis A and others.
“I won’t let my kids swim in the ocean anymore,” said Midge Menking, who has lived in a house across from the beach since 1975, and now books fishing charters from town. She said green algae and a foul stench have become a routine part of her daily walk along the beach.
“People are calling and e-mailing asking me, ‘Is there a problem?’ I have to tell them the truth.”
Effects on Tourism
Health Minister María Luisa Avila, who makes the final call on how, and when, to close a beach to swimming, said she planned to meet soon with Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides, as well as representatives from the Environment and Energy Ministry, to solve the crisis.
“We have a clear policy in these situations. Businesses that are polluting will be ordered to stop. If they do not, we shut them down,” she said.
The potential effects on tourism come second to citizen health, she said. Despite her declaration, she has yet to visit the site and said recent flooding and health risks elsewhere have required the full attention of the ministry.
“When things settle down and the rains stop, we will tour the area and do further studies,” she said.
The long-term solution, she added, is the construction of a long overdue sewage system.
Tamarindo currently has none, instead relying on individual business owners to administer their own sewage.
Minister Benavides says he hopes the Health Ministry and Water and Sewer Institute are “heavy-handed” in discovering the sources of contamination in Tamarindo’s waters.
“It’s very good that AyA has been able to recognize the problem, and that the health authorities are reacting quickly, referring to the Health Ministry and the Municipality of Santa Cruz,” he told The Tico Times in an interview.
He said if a solution to clean the waters isn’t reached in coming months, Tamarindo’s Blue Flag certification, which recognizes clean, safe swimming beaches and other ecofriendly sites, could be revoked.
Sánchez, of the Health Ministry, agreed, saying, “Tamarindo no longer qualifies for a Blue Flag according to current standards.”
“It wouldn’t be the first or last” beach to lose its certification, said Benavides, who said he doubted the discovery would result in a large drop in tourism in Tamarindo, among the country’s most popular beach towns.
“All the cities in the world have their problems,” he said.
But Jorge Gutiérrez, a manager at the Beach House Hostel in Tamarindo, said when the contamination report was made public, clients started asking if it was dangerous to swim in the ocean and drink Tamarindo’s water.
“People are talking about it. The whole world knew there was a problem, but didn’t know how serious it was,” he said.
He said there are noticeably less people in Tamarindo this low season, “even more so now that this report came out,” he said.
“Nobody is surfing,” he said. “Nobody is on the beach. A lot of places are closed for now.”
Menking, another longtime resident involved in the tourism industry, agrees. She and others in the community are fed up with the situation.
“We’ve known about this for a long time,” said Menking, adding that some have insisted on denial, or obscuring such issues from the press, so as to not affect tourism.
“Things have to hit rock bottom before they get better,” she said.