Nicoya Peninsula Waterkeeper® has been set up to tackle some critical and immediate threats to clean water in the area. These are:
Lack of information, documentation and studies monitoring the waterways
There is a serious lack of basic data, such as length and flow rates, to more specific data regarding sources of pollution, the state of different habitats and impacts of land use practices within the watersheds. Without knowing what the state of the water is, it is impossible to take action.
There are noticeable environmental problems in the area and not knowing their exact extent and their impact makes it a very big threat to the wellbeing of nature and humans. Under this scenario, it is very difficult to make the correct decisions regarding the sustainable use and conservation of water resources.
Unsustainable agriculture and cattle farming practices
Agriculture and cattle farming are the major altering land uses in the area and, due to unsustainable management practices, have had a negative impact mainly on the Ario watershed. It is a common practice that cattle drink water from the river, their waste pollutes the water with very dangerous pathogens. Moreover, clear signs of erosion are visible along the riverbank where pastures for cattle grazing are present.
Agrochemical use has caused the different ecosystems great losses in biodiversity and abundance of species. Locals of the watershed’s towns confirm this loss, as well as having been affected themselves by these harmful chemicals. Signs of eutrophication are starting to show in parts of the river were currents slow down and plant blooms are starting to become more evident.
The Caletas Wetland of 150 hectares, the NGO Pretoma’s turtle nursery, and the surrounding lands were victim of airplane spraying of agrochemicals. One of these sprayings was recorded and denounced by the NGO Pretoma to national and international authorities. Regardless of the numerous lawsuits that have been filed won against Agropecuaria Caletas S.A. (owners of the land behind the Caletas Wetland and responsible for the sprayings), no action has been taken. Hopefully, the July 2013 appeal of the Administrative Environmental Tribunal will be complied with.
Harmful fishing practices
Fishing has been part of the lifestyle of the area since its settlement, but this practice has changed since its artisanal beginnings. The Ario River has and could still be suffering from incredibly harmful fishing practices such as poisoning of the water and the use of explosives. Locals of the area claim that these practices have ceased or at least decreased dramatically in the past 5 years, but there is no proof of this. The Ario river also suffers from the use of gill nets, especially during the months when sardines are present.
Industrial shrimp trawling is a common problem inside the protected waters of the Caletas-Ario National Wildlife Refuge as well as indiscriminate compression diving for benthic species. In the freshwater systems this is also occurring, especially in the Bongo and Ario river mouth, where gill nets are frequently used in sections included inside the Wildlife Refuge.
Another protected area that suffers from illegal fishing is Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve, situated on the south-western tip of the Peninsula. The local fishermen state that they protect the “island” as they call the marine section of the reserve in reference to the small island that sits offshore. They admit that during high tourism season they might take fishing tours into the protected waters if the fishing is bad elsewhere. They consider this practice to be sustainable as they only do it for an average of 4 -5 months of the year.
Unplanned and unregulated touristic development
This threat is specific to the towns of Hermosa, Santa Teresa, Carmen and Mal País. The tourism industry started to have an accelerated growth starting in the late 1990s. Due to this pressure, the maritime-terrestrial-zone Regulatory Plan, designating and organizing land use in this area, was approved in 2004. The approval of the Maritime-terrestrial Regulatory Plan legalized requirements regarding size and type of constructions, amongst other things. Nevertheless, lack of monitoring and disrespectfulness of regulations of some have tainted the process and have left this plan only on paper in some cases. Examples of this are hotels without water treatment systems disposing their grey and black waters directly to the streams/sea, terracing, and deforestation of native and protected species for construction.
The Maritime-terrestrial Regulatory Plan left development outside of the maritime-terrestrial-zone still unregulated. This unregulated zone currently has a strong impact on water pollution and poses itself as a threat to these towns as their development and any future investments are not regulated.
Poor solid and liquid waste management
Most of these coastal towns have problems with the management of their wastes, both solid and liquid. Santa Teresa, Carmen, Mal País and parts of Hermosa now have a garbage collection and waste management service which started on 2011. The other towns have unofficial garbage collection, burn their trash, or dispose of it in the nearest river.
Coastal waters also suffer from solid wastes flowing in by the rivers or washing up from offshore mainly during the rainy season (May-October). It is important to note that in the case of rivers with long extension not all the solid wastes that wash up are produced or discarded by the coastal communities, they come all the way from inland.
The management of liquid waste is deficient. Domestic plumbing directing grey and black water either directly into the ground, or worst into the waterways, is known to be present in some areas. Just as an example, during 2011, a private company emptied a truck full of black water in Playa Cuevas at the border of the Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve and the Mal País local fishing village. In the coastal touristic towns, there have been reports by locals stating how certain touristic businesses lack proper treatment systems, or have none at all. Most of the houses and businesses rely on faulty septic systems creating nasty consequences for the area’s water quality.
It is important to point out that there is an incredibly big (private and stray) dog and cat population in these towns which brings about not only natural life depredation, but also a considerable amount of these animals’ feces which contain dangerous pathogens.
Illegal water wells
In 2010, a legislative document pertaining to the exploration and exploitation of underground water was approved by the Government. The Municipality of Cóbano stated illegal wells as one of their top environmental complaints. Locals that depend on wells for water are facing the consequences of the uncontrolled drain of underground water as many wells are drying out or running the risk of being contaminated due to saltwater intrusion.
The AyA (Costarican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewage Systems) is planning the construction of a 25km long aqueduct bringing water from the Ario Valley aquifer to the touristic communities which currently face serious water shortages, mainly during high season (December - April).
Draining of rivers for domestic and tourism use
During the dry season (December through April), which coincides with the high season of tourism, the public supply of water is not enough and many of the local business, hotels and houses are forced to either use private (sometimes illegal) wells or buy water. The origin of this water is not confirmed, but local neighbors state they have seen many of water-selling-trucks filling water from the streams and rivers of the area. If the demand keeps growing and there is no regulation or enforcement of the law, the small creeks that are struggling to stay alive will be completely drained.
The AyA (Costarican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewage Systems) aqueduct project providing water to the coastal touristic communities will feed from the Ario aquifer and will solve their serious water shortages. The National Service of Groundwater, Irrigation and Drainage, SENARA is currently carrying out a thorough hydrogeological study of the aquifer to determine, amongst other things, its hydric balance and its potential recharge capacities.
Intense education has to be done in order to generate awareness in the community to prevent water over-consumption and irrational use, typical of these towns’ culture.
Outdated Water Law and weak law enforcement
The Costarican water law dates from 1942 and has been recognized as weak and outgrown by social, economic and cultural national development. Regulation By-laws have been adopted throughout the years trying to bridge the water law’s gaps.
Moreover, there is a generalized weak law enforcement capability. Even if the regulation by-laws addressing a determined subject exist, when it comes to law enforcement, everything tends to remain in paper. Courts of law and state institutions are rather inoperative regarding environmental claims in general, let alone those regarding water issues specifically.