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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Sardinal Pipeline Illegal, Says Ombudswoman

At least two dozen construction projects on the northern Pacific coast awaiting water are further than ever from receiving it.

A partially built, now-suspended pipeline that would draw from an aquifer below the impoverished inland community of Sardinal to feed booming coastal construction in northern Guanacaste is illegal, according to a scathing final report by the Ombudswoman’s Office.

Funded by a group of at least 23 developers and business owners, and backed by the government, the $8 million pipeline would supply water to the fast-growing tourist towns of Playas del Coco and Ocotal, where the unchecked construction of hotels, houses and condominium projects has sapped the local water supply to the point of seasonal shortages.

The project was authorized in 2006 and suspended in May following protests by residents in Sardinal, and amid questions over the pipeline’s viability and legality.

In a report titled “A Chain of Errors: 30 Reasons,” the Ombudswoman’s Office methodically hacks away at the project’s legal underpinnings as well as the studies the government presented, saying the Sardinal aquifer could provide enough water for the pipeline.

“Facing the chain of errors, illegalities and irregularities of this project, the Ombudswoman’s Office requests the government maintain in suspension the execution of the work,” the report said. “Otherwise, it would continue with a process that has become RISKY, DISORDERLY, RUSHED, NOT CONSULTED, INCOMPLETE AND LACKING TRANSPARENCY.”

The pipeline, the report concluded, is “illegal and, therefore, not viable.”

The Ombudswoman’s condemnation joined a recently released report from the Comptroller General’s Office and a study by the University of Costa Rica’s School of Geology that call into question the legality and feasibility of the pipeline project.

Roberto Dobles, head of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) and the only official in President Oscar Arias’ administration authorized to discuss the Sardinal project, said through a secretary late this week that he could not comment because he had not seen the Ombudswoman’s report.

The Sardinal pipeline is a private-public partnership, to be funded and contracted by private parties through a bank-held trust fund, and then handed over to the government once completed.

Under a contract signed between the developers and the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA), the government “guarantees” at least 5,000 water hookups for the developers.

The Ombudswoman’s Office said that the agreement grants the developers the “unconditional and absolute” right to the supply of water, prioritizing their access ahead of the public.

AyA also issued certificates of water availability, a prerequisite for construction and environmental permits, based on the water that the pipeline would provide once completed. Those certificates, said the Ombudswoman’s Office, are also illegal because they are based on a water source that does not yet exist.

The report notes the pipeline was started without an approved environmental impact study or “sufficient, concrete or detailed” studies of the Sardinal aquifer.

The water studies that AyA presented were reviewed and rejected by the UCR School of Geology and the National Groundwater, Irrigation and Drainage Service (SENARA), the government agency in charge of the nation’s aquifers (TT, June 20).

According to critics, those studies did not take specific measurements of the aquifer, but rather divined how much water could be there based on studies of nearby resources.

SENARA’s director, Bernal Soto, also complained in testimony to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) that his agency should have been consulted on the pipeline.

Following protests and the suspension of the project by the local municipality, the Arias administration formed a commission with officials from SENARA, AyA, and MINAET to reach a consensus on the studies of the aquifer.

The commission contracted a UCR geologist to conduct a new study of the aquifer, which Dobles and other top officials presented in a community meeting in Sardinal.

In a packed and raucous community hall, officials announced the aquifer could supply up to 1,145 liters of water per second – sufficient, they said, not only for the pipeline but the entire northwestern province of Guanacaste, with its 350,000 inhabitants.

Shortly afterward, two top SENARA officials released a letter saying they had resigned in protest from the commission after Dobles and other commission heads ignored information they presented showing there was much less water in the aquifer.

The SENARA employees’ association then released a statement claiming the study presented by the government filled with errors.

On Nov. 21, the School of Geology, responding to a request from the Ombudswoman’s Office, stated that the professor contracted by the commission does not represent the school.

In an analysis of his report, the geology school calls it “preliminary” and questions the findings. It concludes that the available water from the aquifer is actually 85 liters per second, and only 75 percent – 63.75 liters per second – should be tapped if the government wants to assure the aquifer’s sustainability.

That, it says, is not enough even for the preliminary 70 liters per second the government said it would draw through the pipeline for the first two years, let alone the 176 liters per second it is intended to eventually draw.

Four days after the university gave its report to the Ombudswoman’s Office, the Comptroller General’s Office presented its long-awaited study of the pipeline, finding “important” legal violations in AyA’s handling of the project.

The Comptroller’s Office ordered AyA to annul the “irregular” water availability certificates awarded to developers in Playas del Coco and Ocotal. It also ordered the water agency to, should the pipeline project be restarted, comply by the water limits indicated in MINAET and SENARA studies.



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