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December 2016: Tom Peifer’s Commentary on Guanacaste’s Water Crisis

Tom Peifer recently published the following article in The Howler, a local magazine published in Tamarindo. He plainly outlines why our work is important, in light of the drought conditions that will define Guanacaste’s future: “…the answer to dealing with recurrent droughts is not to suck more water out from ever deeper in the ground, it is to get more water in, and to reverse the processes that caused, or at the very least exacerbated, the problem in the first place.” Here is Tom’s full article:

Fritterin’ Away a Crisis

Never let a good crisis go to waste‘— Winston Churchill

You can bet your boots that Ticos don’t have a habit of reading Winston Churchill. The handling of and the proposals to address the recent drought and ongoing water crisis in Guanacaste is the case I propose to put under the microscope and offer a bit of contrarian perspective. Let’s take a look at some of the facts.

Residents of Tamarindo, Avellanes, Los Pargos and any number of other coastal communities by now have probably lost track of the number of water trucks they’ve seen lumbering down the roads over the past few years. My friends Marcela and Garrett Hurley, proprietors of Amigos Bar and Grill, have been hauling water on their motorcycle as part of their daily routine for more than a year. Other amigos realized that something was a bit weird with their wells when the more they watered, the more their plants wilted, withered and went the way of the crops in Carthage after the Romans plowed salt into the soil. Official reports state that underground water supplies of Tamarindo and two communities further north are already experiencing ‘salt water intrusion’. The ocean is moving in because too much fresh water is being sucked out by coastal developments and, due to the drought, not enough is flowing in underground from the landward side, from the watersheds that feed the aquifers. The official prescription is that the aquifers need a bit of R & R–no more wells, no more connections—and then, si Dios quiere, we’ll be back to business as usual. Unfortunately, “usual” seems to have split town and headed for greener pastures. I can’t say as I blame the guy.

Everyone who sweltered through the record-breaking heat in March and April knows it was worse than ever. Old timers told me that this drought was far worse than the historic one back in the early ‘50’s. Forest fires raged at random, fanned by furious winds through tinder-dry hills, dooming heroic efforts at control to nothing more than exercises in futility. These hills constitute both the high ground and the headwaters of these same coastal aquifers that we dearly need to make it through the long hot summers to come. And remember, the flip side of the climate change coin is increased risk of flooding when the droughts finally break. Just in the last few months the long predicted pattern of “Come Hell and High Water,” has been borne out in Texas, Chile, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka. Parts of San Jose are flooding as I write. (A recent, massive number crunching study of thousands of records from weather stations spanning the globe found a 26% increase in extreme rainfall events since 1980.)

This year, the fires in our province reduced both the density of the multi-story vegetation and the carpet of leaf litter protecting the forest soil. Given our current water crisis, and the longer-term trend towards desertification, there is definitely something wrong with this picture. First, when it does rain you get more runoff, flooding and, as anyone from California can tell you, sometimes disastrous mudslides. And second, the water that didn’t infiltrate, but made a mad dash for the ocean, is not recharging our aquifers and not ‘pushing back’ underground against the incalculable pressure and patience of the steady rise of the mighty Pacific. It is also not doing the important work of slowly seeping down through the soil, maintaining the vegetation greener and the streams running for longer. These negative impacts all reinforce the overall drying and heating trends that we have to deal with in the dog days of ‘verano.’

Without going into the confusing plethora of overlapping agencies dealing with water in Costa Rica, or delving into the as-yet unsuccessful efforts to reform the “Ley de Aguas”, the overarching regulatory framework that dates back to 1942, all I can say is that the powers that be completely failed to take advantage of the ‘crisis/opportunity’ that this drought served up on a silver platter.

I’ll leave it to none other than Albert Einstein:

“The crisis is the best blessing that can happen to people and countries, because the crisis brings progress. Creativity is born from the distress, as the day is born from the dark night. It is in crisis that invention, discovery and large strategies are born. The real crisis is a crisis of incompetence.”

I’m inclined to be a bit gentler than Albert and replace “incompetence” with a stunning lack of vision and the guts to take a longer-term approach. In Costa Rica, amongst the powers that be, this holds true from the Casa Presidencial to the Palacio Municipal, and the official responses to the drought bring to mind another gem from Einstein:

“Do not pretend that things will change if we always do the same.”

Local responses range from more water trucked in to affected communities, new pipelines, (one of which I’m happy to say, will help out my friends Marcela and Garrett), calls for more efficient water use in agriculture, waste water for irrigation and the like. As in my native California, strategies such as drilling more and deeper wells—while serving short-term goals, and making the politicians look good–actually make the long-term outlook even worse. Running the risk of repetition, the answer to dealing with recurrent droughts is not to suck more water out from ever deeper in the ground, it is to get more water in, and to reverse the processes that caused, or at the very least exacerbated, the problem in the first place. And that, esteemed readers, obliges us to look beyond the easy to identify problems of pools, fountains, golf courses and the rather lavish landscape preferences of many foreign transplants and focus on the historical transformation of the broad-scale landscape of Guanacaste. In short, we’re bearing witness to just another chapter in the global saga perhaps most succinctly described by French writer Chateaubriand:

Forests to precede civilization, deserts to follow.”

The bottom line: we don’t have a plumbing problem, we have a land use problem within the context of a changing climate, a conjuncture that calls for the kind of creativity, invention and large strategies that Einstein referred to above.

Next time we’ll look at some successful efforts, both globally and locally, that hold out some hope to prevent Samara from turning into the Sahara, and Tamarindo from resembling Timbuktu.

Tom Peifer is an ecological land use consultant with 20 years experience in Guanacaste. 2658-8018. tompeiferecv@gmail.com El Centro Verde is dedicated to researching and promoting sustainable land use, permaculture and environmentally sound development http://www.elcentroverde.org/











August 2016 – Riparian Corridor Project Update

Watch our 2016 riparian corridor project video here.

The Nandamojo watershed was developed for cattle ranching during the early part of the 20th century. Huge swaths of forest were clearcut to create pastures, and the clearing was done without regard for the protection of water resources.

One of the most extensively-cleared areas was the floodplain at the heart of the watershed, between the community of Rio Seco, where the Nandamojo’s major tributaries come together, and the mangrove forest surrounding the river’s estuary at the Pacific ocean. In many parts of that section, which measures about 12 kilometers, farmers and cattle ranchers cleared forests right up to the edge of the waterway.

Forests along riverbanks, called “riparian forests,” provide habitat for countless flora and fauna while shading waterways, slowing evaporation. The forests also play a critical role in removing contamination from runoff during rain, and stabilize riverbanks to prevent erosion.

The damage done by eliminating riparian forests is visible throughout our watershed. Destabilized stream banks have collapsed or are collapsing, many species of animals and plants have disappeared, and a river that once flowed year-round is now dry for most of the year.

In 2015, we set out to create a plan to re-establish and protect forests on both sides of the Nandamojo along those 12 kilometers of river that were most affected by deforestation. We began with a thorough analysis of that section, mapping out land ownership, analyzing existing vegetation and assembling an aerial photo-map of the entire stretch. Through that process, we prioritized areas where reforestation will have the greatest impact and developed relationships with the landowners involved.

Next, we developed a strategy to motivate landowners to participate. We decided to use a system of payments for ecological services, funded by profits from the sales of Bees for Trees honey. Through that system, landowners with farms along the river are paid to reforest and protect riparian areas within 50 feet of the river bank. We offer about $800 per acre protected, which is comparable to payments offered through similar programs managed by the Costa Rican national government. In order to receive payment, participants sign contracts that define the scope of the restoration work and grant access their farm for follow-up inspections.

In addition to financial incentives, our organization provides participating property owners with materials needed to fence off the area, saplings to plant and technical guidance for support in the restoration process.

This year, we’ve signed contracts with five landowners covering five acres of riparian zones that were identified as some of the most deforested sections of the river. Those landowners have installed cattle-proof fences and are in the process of planting 1,000 saplings in the newly-protect areas.

May 2016

Costa Rica’s national groundwater ministry (SENARA – Servicio Nacional de Aguas Subterráneas, Riego y Avenamiento) has provided us with an important report on the Nandamojo watershed and its aquifers. The hydro-geologic study, authored by Roberto Ramirez Chavarria, is an analysis of three important aquifers in the Guanacaste region and was published in 2010. The document has long been the subject of local gossip and speculation, as most watershed stakeholders had never seen its contents.

The report indicates that the Nandamojo watershed’s aquifers have the potential for a far greater annual recharge (some 30 million cubic meters of groundwater) than the amount needed by humans (estimated to be some 2 million cubic meters). For several reasons, however, the findings need to be reviewed and further analyzed before it can be concluded that the Nandamojo’s aquifers will always have plentiful water.

1) The “water balance equation” used to calculate recharge potential assumed 1.7 meters of rain annually, far more than the watershed has received in recent years.

The single most important variable in the calculations used is the amount of water entering the Nandamojo basin, and the 1.7 meters of rain used was based on the average annual rainfall measured at a meteorological station about 15 kilometers outside our basin from 1995 to 2007.

Both in the long and short term, the Guanacaste region has been receiving decreasing amounts of rainfall. The drying has been exacerbated by climate change, which is causing stronger “El Niño” phenomena in the Pacific Ocean. Those phenomena have been directly linked to drying in our region, which has measured significant annual rainfall deficits.

Last year, our rain gauge measured 1.1 meters of rainfall, about 35% less than the assumed amount. That would have dramatically reduced the watershed’s potential recharge.

2) Extraction statistics are based on estimates.

It is difficult to get a complete understanding of the amount of water used in any area in Costa Rica, and the Nandamojo is no exception. The estimates used to calculate extraction statistics, or the amount of water used by people in the watershed, are based on legally-registered wells, which probably represent only 50-60% of the actual wells in the basin.

3) All calculations are based on old data and do not project for climate change or growth in consumption.

The “water balance equation” is extremely complex, but its purpose is to define how much water goes in and out of a watershed every year and determine how much water is “produced” there, or how much can be extracted annually on a sustainable basis.

Important variables in this equation will definitely change, including annual rainfall (as discussed above), average annual temperature and the amount of water extracted by human communities.

The report was published in 2010 and the authors essentially produced a snapshot estimate of the water balance in the Nandamojo for that year. However, Guanacaste is becoming drier, hotter and more populated. All three of those factors will have negative impacts on the water balance equation in the Nandamojo.

Moving forward: First, ROW is analyzing this report and we have found technical support to help us better understand its contents. After completing a more thorough analysis, we’ll be hosting forums to discuss it and the Nandamojo’s water balance equation with stakeholders.

Second, we have established a groundwater monitoring network to monitor the ongoing health of our aquifers and update the report’s findings.

There are serious threats to the Nandamojo’s water resources, and other aquifers in our region that had previously been declared stable have now become stressed through mismanagement. We continue work to address those threats and ensure that the Nandamojo’s aquifers provide abundant water for prosperous animal, plant and human communities.