A Slowly Dying Giant

The Tempisque river, which runs from the slopes of the Orosi volcano to the Gulf of Nicoya in Costa Rica is overused and overexploited. How long can it sustain the communities that live along its banks and depend on the river to survive?

“It’s going little by little…a river that walks silently. Maybe it’s that silence along its banks that is killing him. Or the silence of the Ministry of Environment and Energy and the National System of Conservation Areas, or the silence of those in charge of concessions, of mining, or the silence of the people of Guanacaste themselves. It is a vicious silence which sooner or later will bring new, unbearable realities,” said José Palma Villalobos, an 84-year-old man, from the town of Belén in Guanacaste province, who has defended the river for 60 years.

Jose Palma Villalobos, ecologist and defender of the river

The Tempisque River is the main artery of Guanacaste Province; everything revolves around its presence. The river runs through the most important towns, sustains the main economic activities, and feeds the wetlands, national parks and wild areas before ending its journey in the Gulf of Nicoya after surviving 144 kilometers.

Three protected areas in the region are bathed by its waters: the Tempisque Conservation Area (ACT), located on the lower basin; the Arenal-Tempisque Conservation Area (ACAT), which protects the middle area of the river; and the Guanacaste Conservation Area (ACG), which has been declared a Natural World Heritage site by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The Tempisque River is also the main source of water for Costa Rica’s most important agricultural region, which at 594,000 hectares (3,405 Km2) is 6.69% of the total national land area and 60% of Guanacaste province. 

According to the State of the Nation Report on Human Sustainable Development, 24,000 hectares of sugar cane, 5,300 hectares of melon, and 25% of all the rice planted in the country are planted in this area every year.

The VI National Agricultural Census, a wide-range statistical study, shows that there are 65,000 hectares of sugar cane planted in Costa Rica, 55% of which are in Guanacaste. Up to 45% of the province’s larger municipalities of Carrillo, Liberia and Cañas are also now used to grow sugar cane.

Production is relatively centralized with Central Azucarera del Tempisque (CATSA)—Costa-Rica’s largest cane producer located in the heart of Guanacaste—alone owning more than 10,000 hectares; another producer, Azucarera El Viejo S.A. cultivates on 4,600 hectares. CATSA is listed among the country’s ten biggest exporters. Rice is also a major export crop with companies such as El Pelón de la Bajura, Ingenio El Viejo and Ingenio Taboga active in the region.

Some 90% of the water concessions granted for the Tempisque are for agriculture, with many predating laws required evaluation of their impact on the environment. But this heavy reliance on the river to feed Costa Rica’s agricultural heartland is taking a major toll. Records from the Water Direction of the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) show that 28,034 liters are extracted per second from the Tempisque river basin. Examined another way, this would be like extracting 10,560 barrels of oil per minute or 633,600 in one hour. To meet this demand, one of the world’s largest oil tankers would have to depart from Caldera port filled to capacity every three hours, nine minutes and twenty-two seconds. 

It’s not only agricultural concessions that threaten the Tempisque River: dams, pumps both legal and illegal, hot water sewers, dredgers, tanker trucks, fecal coliforms, pesticides, deforestation put daily pressure on its resources. At this rate, how long can the river survive? More importantly, how much time is left for the many that depend on its waters?

Dams are ever-present throughout the river’s course. From Azucarera El Viejo S.A. Photo: Sara Quesada.

The river’s flow has been decreasing for quite some time, but recent indications are sounding alarm bells in the region. This year, measurements from MINAE indicated that some parts of the river had decreased in flow volume from 4,807 to 167 liters per second. In others places the river had practically dried up.

“More water is being extracted than the river’s flow can bear,” stated Allan Astorga, a sedimentologist at the University of Costa Rica’s Central American School of Geology.

Despite overwhelming evidence, government officials argue that because of climatic phenomena such as El Niño—which has placed increasing pressure on the Guanacaste—they cannot cancel concessions or place restrictions on water extraction. Due to current rates, the Tempisque now slows to a mere trickle from December to April as different agroindustries swallow its vital resources, potentially leaving an entire region in crisis.

The Central Azucarera del Tempisque Sociedad Anónima (CATSA) alone has been awarded a total of 4.722 liters per second with its four concessions. This represents more than half the historical mean of the river’s flow during summer (8.100 liters per second). Photo: Sara Quesada

Officially, there are 16 awarded concessions that regulate water extraction from the Tempisque, but there are no real means to verify and control how much is being taken out. The Guardia station, a control point located in Liberia that was built by the National Electricity Institute, used to collect data on water flow, but it closed down in 2010.

“The Guardia station was vital, but insufficient,” said José Miguel Zeledón, Director of Water at MINAE. “We’re looking for funds to put in place two stations down the river from Guardia, so we can have control through stages.”

The Water Direction assigns concessions upon the flow’s historical mean. According to data from the Guardia station, dated in 2010, the average available flow reached 8,000 liters per second. 

By April 2016, the total amount concessioned reached 8,093 liters per second, with the huge difference that by now the largest registered flow at Guardia station was only 4,700 liters; in other words, an overexploitation of almost twice the Tempisque’s total capacity.

Illegal concessions also upset this delicate balance. During the summer, the Tempisque is transformed into a highway of tanker trucks that parade along roads built on the river’s bank. Here, an estimated thousands of liters suddenly disappear from the equation.

Back roads through the Tempisque are notorious for tanker trucks looking for easy and illegal access; much of the water extracted is then sold to hotels. Photo: Sara Quesada

“Not only is the Tempisque and its environment hurt, but also users downstream and this has to do with the issue of equity,” acknowledged Zeledón.

What is happening to the Tempisque is a fate common to many river basins in Costa Rica: as time goes by, pollution and neglect of these vital resources worsen. The country’s famed Tárcoles River, for example, is the most polluted river in Central America.

While Costa Rica has made some progress in the field of conservation, it continues to lag behind other countries in the region when it comes to achieving political, normative and institutional changes needed to move toward real sustainable development.

A study conducted by National University of Costa Rica’s School of Environmental Sciences found that the country has abundance of water resources, but retains the largest water extraction rate per capita in Central America. The study estimates that Costa Rica has access to 110 billion cubic meters of water, but that the hydroelectric and farming sectors are its biggest consumers.

Large landowners, scarce resources

Dalila Cascante is a 63-year-old woman who, along with her husband Marcelo Mendoza has made a livelihood upon the river’s banks. Together they created the ecotourism enterprise Palo Verde Boat Tours in Ortega, Santa Cruz, which offers river excursions, but the waters—and their profits—are drying up..

“Ten years ago I found an overflowing river; the river we have now is a rickety one,” Cascante pointed out.

Dalila Cascante, small business owner from Ortega, Santa Cruz

While six or seven years ago they could carry out three tours a day, it’s now rare that they have more than one to avoid running aground because of low tide. Before starting their business, Dalila and Marcelo were small sugar cane and rice producers. The problems they faced with irrigation and lack of water almost made them leave Guanacaste, but they instead decided to try their luck with an enterprise that now is threatened by similar challenges. 

“We faced water scarcity long ago and today once again it’s gotten us thinking. Revenue decreases if there are less tours, but it’s not just that, there’s less life on the river, its beauty ends,” Cascante said sadly.

As the demand for the river’s waters increase, the legal right to extract remains in the hands of a few, with small farmers being left in scarcity, and thus turning to illegal extraction through hidden wells or directly from the river. According to Édgar Cantón Pizarro, who works with the Committee for the Rescue of the Tempisque River: “the river has long been an aqueduct for the large landowners and their crops.”

Many small producers in Guanacaste have no access to irrigation—even those located next to the Tempisque’s banks—while CATSA alone owns more than half the river’s flow through its MINAE concession.

If someone digs a well without permission, MINAE shuts it down because it’s illegal; if there’s no irrigation, small farmers can’t grow enough cane and rice to make a living. Most of them depend on the large mills for planting and harvesting their crops. This means that when the harvest is not large enough they end up owing the mills money.

“Dead water” is one of the main criticisms against the irrigation technique used on thousands of hectares of crops, mainly cane and rice. Large ditches surround the cane fields and much of this water is left right there, stagnant and polluted. Photo: Marcela Bertozzi

The earnings don’t cover the mill’s transportation expenses, many have to take out loans from banks or the rural Development Institute (Inder). In other words, large producers worry about improving their production, the smaller ones worry about not losing their homes and land.

“Many ministers and congress people have passed through here to see how they can help us and nothing has happened, the only option is to pay up. We don’t see the sun shine, the people from MINAE took away the wells along with the irrigation system we had in place. They said a deep well was to be constructed and required $8,000; that’s too much money for us,” said Ólman Álvarez, one of many small cane farmers who has already lost his land.

“It’s very contradictory to go to Filadelfia and see the cane fields all green while we’re here waiting for the rain because there’s no irrigation. They won’t let us build wells either. What are we going to eat, dust?” argued Daniel Serrano, a small cane farmer. 

If a small farmer goes to MINAE to request irrigation from the Tempisque, the answer is an outright no. José Miguel Zeledón, who heads that operation says that not a drop more can be extracted from the river. Any improvised wells must be shut down according to the law.

According to the State of the Nation report, there are 24,000 hectares of sugar cane planted in Guanacaste, of which more than 10,000 belong to Central Azucarera del Tempisque Sociedad Anónima (Catsa). Many wetlands have disappeared to make room for this extensive crop. Photo: Marcela Bertozzi

In response to these issues, MINAE head Édgar Gutiérrez recommended that small farmers find alternative sources of livelihood. “The problem is that water is a scarce resource and that’s where it becomes an economic issue,” he said. “Economics is the science of handling scarce resources, so you have to see what works and what doesn’t.”

To these small farmers, the Tempisque river is but a memory, a picture. Other rivers and tributaries to the Tempisque have also been overtaken by large-scale landowners.

“Right now the Tempisque has been kidnapped by four lizards who aren’t even from Guanacaste,” said Ulises Cantón, a small cane producer form Filadelfia, Carrillo. “We have no access to the river’s water, you must have good money to take water from this river to our lands, but even if we could, it couldn’t be done because they’re putting an end to the river.”

Small-scale farmers on the state of water resources along the Tempisque River

Less water, more pollution

Experts say that the Tempisque is being overexploited—not just the river, but the entire basin.

Jorge Arturo Jiménez, now the director of the NGO Marviva, carried out a study ten years ago on the environmental flow of the Tempisque. At that time and for decades prior, more water was being extracted than was available.

“We raised the alarm on bad flow management; it was being concessioned practically in its entirety,” explained Jiménez. “We had a severe environmental impact problem because the environmental flows were not being considered.”

Jiménez asserts that at the time, he determined the concessioned flow to be a bit more than 8,000 liters per second, which is basically the Tempisque’s entire flow volume; that is the same volume concessioned this past April (8,093 l/s), according to MINAE’s Water Direction.

A recent report from the United Nations World Water Assessment Program (WWAP 2016) classifies the management of Tempisque resources as failing to “encourage sustained and equitable use.” Not only are human livelihoods affected, the report states, but the animals and ecosystems that rely on the river are also in danger.

“The consideration of the environmental side of the Tempisque has been omitted, but the 1942 law is a great barrier which limits us from considering many aspects in order to see the environmental issue at closer glance,” acknowledged José Miguel Zeledón. The water law he references has been in effect for 74 years, but has no provisions that require decisions to take environmental factors into account, or potential impact on the river itself or the ecosystems that rely on it.

Jose Miguel Zeledón, Director of Waters at MINAE

Data from the 13th State of the Nation report the presence of 24,000 fecal coliforms every 100 millimeters on the Tempisque river that create, “conditions not allowable for direct contact, like navigation or fish farming.” Additionally, it specifies the presence of pesticides in places like the neighboring Palo Verde National Park, considered one of the most important protected areas in the country for aquatic migratory and local bird species.  

“The less water the river has, the more polluted it will get, because the problem is no just that the river’s flow decreases, but that the weaker the flow, the less capacity it will have for diluting pollutants,”detailed Gerardo Umaña Villalobos, a limnology specialist at the Center for Investigation in Marine Sciences and Limnology (CIMAR), at the University of Costa Rica.

The same report also describes heavy sedimentation in the river and notable deforestation along its banks, which contributes to pesticide runoff.

But pollution remains one of the river’s greatest threats. Residents of Ortega and Santa Cruz townships reported pollution reaching the Tempisque from Ingenio El Viejo S.A., which also produces rice and is located approximately 4 kilometers away from both locations.

A field visit confirmed the existence of a channel conducting wastewater, lightly covered by soil where the smell was unbearable. The locals claim that after the cane harvest and when it rains heavily, a dredger pushes the soil blockage away and all the water ends up in Las Palmas River, a tributary of the Tempisque.

Édgar Cantón Pizarro, Commission For the Rescue of the Tempisque River

“What’s needed is not just the quantity of water, but quality,” said Marviva director Jorge Jiménez.

The main sugar mills in Guanacaste were contacted several times about their position on the pollution and overexploitation of the Tempisque River by large companies. The only reply came in the form of an e-mail from Central Azucarera del Tempisque (CATSA) and Azucarera El Viejo S.A. Both gave assurances they would provide an answer within one more week, but after repeated phone calls and another e-mail, no answer has been received.

No water from the sky or the ground

The problems of the Tempisque River are more complicated that what is happening on or below its surface. The recent drought in Guanacaste Province was one of the most severe droughts in its history. In 2015 there were only 11 days of rain, which dramatically reduced the river’s recharging capacity.

José Miguel Zeledón, MINAE’s Director of Water, stresses that the river also faces incredible pressure from sanctioned and unsanctioned wells. According to MINAE, there are 2,373 registered wells in Tempisque Basin, with more applications submitted each year. This doesn’t take into account the number of illegal wells operating without the proper registration in the region.

He underlined that in Costa Rica it is not illegal to build a well, one of the main shortcomings of the 1942 law.

“If you’re going to shut wells down, you have to ask for permission,” he said, “if they don’t allow you to, turn back because you cannot break into private property. Say you find a well and you shut it down because it’s illegal, but then you go back and find it’s been reopened, you can charge people with disobedience, but we still can’t get a conviction for water encroachment.”

The Minister for Environment and energy, Édgar Gutiérrez, attributes the Tempisque’s situation and indeed that of all who face irrigation problems not just to the water cycle being affected by the El Niño phenomenon, but also to “other factors,” like the 40 year lag in water distribution infrastructure.

“For the last 30 years, the country has had government administrations that have tried to dismantle the State’s role in order to pass its competencies to the private sector. When this administration began we found an inability not just in controlling but also inspection. For instance, the Water Direction needs at least three times more inspectors," explained the official.

According to Water Direction head José Miguel Zeledón, the river’s fate is directly tied to old and obsolete laws, a failure to make quick decisions, lousy management and a considerable lack of human resources.

“Up until April 1st this year, the Water Direction had only one employee in Guanacaste, now there are eight but that’s not successful control. There must be a control team along a management team. We spend too much time in the office and little time controlling what’s managed,” admitted Zeledón. 

One major difficulty has to do with the fact that the Water Law from 1942 does not require any type of scientific measurements to assess environmental changes. At its inception, the law also did not call for any Environmental Impact Studies; only concessions granted after 2004 include them. 

In other words, nine out of the 16 registered water concessions did not conduct any sort of environmental assessment prior to being allowed to extract water from the river. This was upheld by the National Technical Environment Secretariat (SETENA) in a 2010 resolution, which came after the Constitutional Court asked SETENA for clarification on the issue.

For geologist and environmental evaluation expert Allan Astorga, that resolution contradicts the Environmental Organic Law and precludes the possibility of applying an Environmental Diagnosis Study, a mechanism that was also approved by the Constitutional Court in 2010.

“Instead of properly applying the legislation, our institutions come up with regulations that favor those who are not complying with it; the authorities have become accomplices, a part of the problem and not of the solution to what’s happening to the Tempisque. It is irresponsible,” he asserted.

Climate changes further dry out the Tempisque

If human activity wasn’t enough, rising temperatures and falling precipitation rates are also plaguing the Tempisque's basin. Since the region is so large, it faces different climate scenarios for the high, middle and lower basin of the river.

According to data provided by the National Meteorology Institute as part of its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), temperatures could rise 7.92 degrees Celsius in areas like Liberia, which is located on the high basin of the Tempisque.  In the lower basin, temperature increases of up to 5.94 degrees Celsius could be reached. The report indicates that there could also be a considerable reduction in rainfall.

Sprinkler irrigation and large ditches made on land is one of the major criticisms of the use of water in Guanacaste, due to the great waste involved in this mode of irrigation. However, there's currently little interest in investing in better irrigation systems and infrastructure. Credit: Marcela Bertozzi

More recent data from the Center for Geophysical Research (CIGEFI) that includes information from the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) assesses moderate and worst case scenarios for warming trajectories through 2050.

These changes are grouped in scenarios called Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP), which offer specific paths that climate changes could take. Under one scenario (RCP 4.5), warming could reach 4.5 watts per square meter; under the worst-case scenario (RCP 8.5), it could reach 8.5 watts per square meter. This could mean greater chances of drought and a stronger influence from El Niño and La Niña phenomena. 

“At the moment we’re following the trajectory of the worst possible scenario. Now, warming is something that cannot be reduced, but we can work to reduce the possibility of warming up in accordance with the most adverse scenario”, explained Lenín Corrales, a climate change expert at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE). 

According to Corrales, “the problem is not that temperature is raised one or two degrees, but how long will that variation degree be sustained in light of such factors as mangrove photosynthesis stops at 35 degrees Celsius?” 

“If there’s a scenario where you have more temperature and less precipitation, that translates physiologically into plants needing more water, which in turn has to do with evapotranspiration,” he explained. “In the case of humans, you would need to hydrate more and more. The same happens to plants, you’re going to have an environment where they will require more water and faster. The warmer you get, the more agitated you become. Higher water demand means its availability is essential.”

But temperature and precipitation are not the only factors in play. The population is also rising, along with its demand for water and resources. According to models run by the Central-American Population Center (CCP), Liberia will have 36,165 new inhabitants by the year 2050; Carrillo will see a rise of 30,236 inhabitants with 36,499 in Santa Cruz and 12,050 in Nicoya.

Collectively, the townships that surround the Tempisque River will have 114,950 new inhabitants. Will they still have a river?

“The last report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicated that the El Niño Phenomenon’s variability will prevail in Central America, so the country must prepare itself to fight the El Niño Phenomenon Southern Oscillation (ENOS), since the IPCC states that what just happened in Guanacaste will keep happening but more severely,”,explained Corrales.

According to Corrales, successful climate change adaptation in the region hinges on the development of a vulnerability analysis, water balances for the basin. There must also be investment in technology innovation and transfer, mainly regarding water distribution and irrigation.  

Possibility of change

The Tempisque River is the lifeblood to many living along its banks in Guanacaste Province and its management should be a priority to all who depend on it. Local governments should play a more significant role in regulating water and gravel extraction, and there should be stronger commitment to protecting the resources said geologist Allan Astorga. At the same time, public universities should play a greater role in the research and monitoring of the river. 

One project Astorga proposes is the creation of an Environmental Protection Integration System (SIPA). According to a study he conducted, there were 16 entities in the country that had environmental control responsibilities equivalent to MINAE’s Water Direction in 2004. His proposal aimed at unifying all of them.

He also pointed out the inefficiency derived from that bureaucratic fragmentation of objectives: “We designed it in 2004, even an executive decree for the creation of SIPA was drafted. The State goes, visits and inspects any activity, but the assigned official goes and guards only a small piece of environmental legislation, if there’s any other problem outside the scope that legislation it’s not taken into account because it’s not pertinent to it. This project was either thrown into a drawer or in the trash bin”, he explained.

Another effort integrating different stakeholders came into effect when Costa Rica’s Environmental Minister Édgar Gutiérrez and President Luis Guillermo Solís issued a decree last July 25th in Nicoya, Guanacaste to reinstate the Natural Resources Vigilance Committees (COVIRENA). According to Gutiérrez, COVIRENA would fulfill the notion of integrating the communities in the protection of natural resources, aiding SINAC and its legal competencies.

He also recalled the Piedras River reservoir project: “Integral Supplying System on the Right Bank of the Tempisque,” which will try to satisfy the demand for underground water on that bank, and could mean an improvement on the river’s superficial water, the idea is to take pressure off the aquifers and thus from the river. 

This $20 million project consists in building a dam on the river Piedras, which would hold 84 million cubic meters of water, over an area of 830 hectares.

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