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Tempisque River: History of neglect threatens Guanacaste people and environment

Costa Rica August 2, 2016
Source: TicoTimes

Several months into the rainy season, Guanacaste is green and lush again. The severe drought that afflicted the country’s agriculture- and tourism-dependent, northwestern province has eased in recent months. But Guanacaste’s longstanding water problems remain: Coastal communities lack a reliable water source; farmers, gravel miners and municipalities squabble over available water; and the government struggles to monitor and patrol use of the province’s rivers and aquifers.

At the center of Guanacaste’s water battles is the Tempisque River — Costa Rica’s third longest — along with its tributaries and the underground aquifers that both feed it and take from it to replenish their stores. The Tempisque watershed occupies 60 percent of the land in Guanacaste province and one-tenth of Costa Rican territory.The nearly 145-kilometers-long Tempisque River starts in the Guanacaste mountain range between the Orosí and Rincón de la Vieja volcanoes and empties into the Gulf of Nicoya, feeding a large network of mangrove-lined, protected wetlands near its mouth. It is a river of extremes, capable of disastrous floods in the rainy season and withering droughts in summer.

But the river’s natural fluctuations have been amplified in recent decades by the humans and institutions that use it. A warming, drying climate threatens to accentuate those fluctuations even more, upsetting the delicate balance among thousands of water users — big and small — and threatening the region’s environmental health.

To understand the pressures on the Tempisque River, The Tico Times and The Voice of Guanacaste joined forces to analyze the history of the river’s use, its current status and likely future. We analyzed archives from the Environment Ministry (MINAE), including the files of the five largest concessions granted to private companies to extract water — 500 liters per second and above — from the Tempisque. These concessions, the oldest of which dates back to the 1960s, are held by La Ceiba (producers of sugarcane, melons and rice), El Viejo (sugar mill), Central Azucarera Tempisque S.A. (CATSA) (sugarcane, sugar mill), Agrorice de Milano (rice and sugarcane) and Hacienda Río Seco (rice).

Some 90 percent of water concessions granted for the Tempisque are for agriculture.

We also examined academic studies, and interviewed experts and major players in the river’s use and management. What we found is:

The data used to grant water concessions by the National Energy Service, the entity charged with that task until 1996, and later the Environment Ministry’s Water Department has been historically flawed.

Most of the largest water concessions have never been evaluated in terms of their environmental impact because they predate the laws requiring evaluation. Those that have been evaluated have been done so in a cursory fashion, with no consideration of the effects on the Tempisque River as a whole and its flora and fauna.

Not until 2003 did the Environment Ministry begin to take into account the need to leave some water in the river to support species and replenish aquifers. Prior to that, every drop was up for concession.

The Environment Ministry’s Water Department has far too few resources to properly monitor water use in the Tempisque watershed — and across the country — and has only weak enforcement tools.

Authorities and researchers have a poor understanding of how the Tempisque River works in conjunction with aquifers in the area, contributing to unreliable data upon which to regulate water use.

Climate change threatens to substantially change the volume and timing of the Tempisque’s flow, but the combination of shaky data, lack of attention, poor institutional coordination and political pressure have impeded planning for the future.

Outside experts and even the very officials in charge of regulating use of the Tempisque’s waters say the river has not gotten the attention it deserves.

“What we’re seeing is terrible management of the Tempisque River, a serious lack of control over the concessions,” said Jorge Jiménez, who co-authored a 2005 study of the river that is widely cited by water officials. Jiménez is currently director of the conservation group MarViva.

The history of neglect and cursory management of the Tempisque River provides a cautionary tale as Costa Rica and the world prepare for a warmer, drier climate. By one estimate, calculated by two scientists from the Technology Institute of Costa Rica (TEC), by 2030, the Tempisque could have close to 17 percent less water during the critical irrigation months of February through April compared to the monthly averages measured between 1980 and 1985.

Jiménez said several communities on the lower banks of the Tempisque require water to be trucked in for household use during especially dry periods.

At the same time, thousands of families in Guanacaste depend on the work generated by agriculture, and tourism development is threatened by the scarcity of water.

Did drought dry up the Tempisque?

By September 2014, Guanacaste was facing its worst drought in more than 60 years. President Luis Guillermo Solís declared a state of emergency for Guanacaste as well as parts of Alajuela and Puntarenas provinces, freeing up funding for disaster relief. The drought got even worse in 2015.

In October, neighbors from the farming community of Filadelfia, located on the banks of what’s known as the middle stretch of the Tempisque, published photos on Facebook of an alarmingly low flow, with sandbanks poking up between rivulets instead of the mighty river that often overflows its banks during that month.

In March of this year, cattle ranchers were forced to sell part of their herds because they lacked enough water and food for the animals.

On the Tempisque River, whose water is used mostly for irrigating crops like sugarcane and rice, the government was forced to beseech two of the biggest water users, Azucarera El Viejo and CATSA, to cut their water use by half during the most critical months (March-May) of the recent dry season.

The prolonged drought has been blamed on an especially intense El Niño weather phenomenon, which generally causes an increase in precipitation on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast and a decrease along the Pacific coast. In turn, the drought has been blamed for the scarcity of water in the Tempisque River.

But is drought the only culprit? Documents and interviews with experts and regulators show that it’s not.

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