A controversial aqueduct that would take water from an inland town to feed a nearby tourism boom along the northern Guanacaste coast has been suspended.
The $8 million project, almost 75 percent complete, would pipe water from the town of Sardinal to Playas del Coco and Ocotal, Pacific beach towns nine kilometers away.
The Carrillo municipality voted this week to suspend the project, saying they were concerned the pipeline might sap Sardinal’s water supply.
The suspension follows more than a week of protests, punctuated by confrontations with police, by Sardinal residents who say their water is being stolen and their rights trampled.
Private developers from the region have been funding and building the aqueduct.
Once built, the aqueduct would be handed over to the National Institute of Water and Sewers (AyA) and become public infrastructure, while developers would receive water hookups from the new pipes.
The aqueduct would provide 8,000 new hookups. The current water system has been maxed out for nearly two years as new hotels, homes and condominiums have outpaced existing water supplies.
The lack of water has been the only obstacle to development. The municipality cannot award construction permits without an AyA-approved water source.
Carrillo Municipal Council President Franklin Rivas said the local government has not seen any “serious or recent studies” showing how much water is in the aquifer.
AyA has presented one study, but it was completed in January, when the project was already well underway, Rivas noted.
On Wednesday, AyA’s director, Ricardo Sancho, announced his agency would invest more than $1 million in improvements to Sardinal’s existing aqueduct.
In addition, he said, Sardinal’s aqueduct would connect to the Playas del Coco-Ocotal aqueduct.
Sancho also said he would meet with community leaders to resolve their concerns, which he said were being stoked in part by “extreme left” activists.
The AyA director insisted the project is sustainable and transparent. Citing AyA studies, he said it would use only 10 percent of the water available in Sardinal’s aquifer.
Marielos Bustos, a janitor and housewife who has helped lead the protests, said Sancho earlier this year offered the community 50 million colones (about $100,000) in improvements to the Sardinal aqueduct and later raised his offer to ¢100 million.
“Ricardo thought that the people were going to be content with that,” she said. “But the people of Sardinal are not going to let them take the water in that dimension.”
Bustos also pointed out that Sardinal, with about 4,000 residents, has been dependent for 40 years on pipes that are only “about three or four inches” in diameter, while those used for the Playas del Coco-Ocotal aqueduct are more than 20 inches in diameter and will draw 176 liters per second, more than 10 times what Sardinal uses.
The community’s complaints have been shored up by a series of documents filed with the Supreme Court after the Guanacaste Brotherhood Association filed suit to stop the aqueduct.
In two memos dated Dec. 20 and Mar 28, AyA’s internal auditor, Alcides Vargas, said AyA ignored warnings about the fragility of the area’s aquifers. He also stated the project lacks permits and a formal study of the Sardinal aquifer, and it has not been coordinated with other government agencies.
The auditor warned of environmental impact that development from thousands of new water connections would have. The Playas Del Coco’s aquifer, located directly beneath the populace downtown, for example, is “highly vulnerable” to pollution from septic systems.
Bernal Soto, manager of the National Subterranean Water and Irrigation Service (SENARA) told the Supreme Court that studies are needed to evaluate the impact of the aqueduct on Sardinal’s aquifer.
Soto said his agency has authority over aqueducts, and said AyA only informed SENARA about the project in early May.
This week, however, he appears to have changed his tune. In a statement released Wednesday by AyA, Sancho said Soto has assured the agency that Sardinal’s aquifers have more than enough water for the project, and that SENARA has no authority over AyA projects.
National Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesdada called Soto’s statements “grave contradictions.”
Quesada has released a series of statements questioning AyA’s handling of the project and asking the agency to suspend construction until doubts are cleared up. Quesada has also filed a brief in support of the Guanacaste association’s lawsuit.
“The government is violating the same laws that it has constructed itself for these projects to be legal,” she told The Tico Times.
Carlos Arroyo, general manager of Mapache, one of the first developers to begin building in Playas del Coco, said AyA has studies and plans completed since late 2005 or 2006. He insisted the project will benefit Sardinal citizens.