Fuentes Verdes: Keeping Lake Arenal blue, the lakeside green, and developers honest

Unfinished condo project near Lake Arenal, Costa Rica

Unfinished condo project near Lake Arenal, Costa Rica

“We’re not the ugly police,” says Ed Yurica, president of Fuentes Verdes, an environmental watchdog group in the Lake Arenal area of Costa Rica. “What we’re about is water. No one gets to mess with our water.”

He and Sandra Shaw Homer (the former president of Fuentes Verdes) are catching me up on all the new development in the area. We’re talking about a local condo project that is an undeniable eyesore, reminding me of an unfinished cell block with killer views of the lake. But the project’s aesthetics are not  the problem, Ed and Sandy tell me.

“They have no water,” says Ed. “Can you imagine—hundreds of supposedly high-end condos and they haven’t secured water rights?”

Fuentes Verdes sees projects like this one all the time, and they try to bring any permitting or environmental problems to the attention of the local officials or, if necessary, national institutions, who aren’t always vigilant in policing big developers.

Through an outsider’s eyes, the land around lovely Lake Arenal looks mostly unspoiled. But Ed and Sandy aren’t outsiders. Ed, 59, is medio-Tico (half Costa Rican): his grandfather was a founding father of Tilaran, a town just west of the lake. Then his mother went and married a gringo and Ed lived in Seattle for a long while, so he’s also norteAmericano, with the accent and the “terrible Spanish” (he claims) to prove it.  Sandy, in her early sixties and originally from the East Coast of the U.S., has lived on the lake for two decades, speaks Spanish very well, and has become more and more prone to fits of rage, she half-jokes, when she sees yet another foreign developer come in and think he can run roughshod over local laws and over the land itself.

Two situations in particular are sticking in Fuentes Verdes’ collective craw, and they stand for the dozens of other affronts to the land and culture that are visited on this area every year.

So many condos, so little (legal) water

The first is the unfinished cellblock of 315 condos going by the name of Maleku, perched on a ravaged hillside above the lake’s northwest shore. Ironically, they’ve appropriated the name of a nearby indigenous tribe (the Maleku), perhaps to make the project seem native to Costa Rica. The developer is from Canada.

“They had to cut away half of a mountainside before they could start the building,” says Sandy, which caused some erosion problems during building and is likely to cause more.  But an even bigger problem is that the project has no water.”

The project started well enough.  SETENA (part of MINAE, the Ministry in charge of how building projects affect the environment) approved the project’s Environmental Impact Study (required of projects here in Costa Rica since 1995). And the project secured a building permit from the local municipality. But one of the trickiest things, even in this country where, during the wet season,  rain-swollen rivers wash out bridges and (on a more positive note) heavy rains create the opportunity for hydroelectric power, is making sure there’s a reliable source of clean water for any new development, a source that doesn’t threaten the supply of nearby communities.

Developers either negotiate directly with AYA, the national water company, or (more commonly) they make a deal with the local ASADAs, water committees that are the only organizations legally allowed to provide a hookup to a locally-controlled water supply. ASADAs tap springs or other water sources, create the infrastructure to deliver that water to people and businesses, and then regulate the delivery of that water.

“Local ASADAs are getting smart,” says Sandy. “They know they have a valuable commodity. Often they’ll negotiate with developers, saying, ‘Ok, you build a certain amount of infrastructure, and pay this much for the water, and we’ll have a deal.’ But it can take a long time to come up with a workable solution.”

Apparently the developers of Maluku didn’t want to wait or go through the proper channels. Rumor has it that they’re buying water from a local farmer. But it’s illegal in  Costa Rica for an individual to sell water—water rights are sacrosanct, with a healthy environment actually guaranteed by the constitution—and water must be regulated by the appropriate national or local water board.

Another problem with the Maleku development is density. “The typical project around the lake,” says Sandy, “is a gated community of many large lots. These have their own problems, but with a high-density project the potential problems escalate exponentially.”

Supermarket in Tilaran draining its waste into the town aquafier

Pali supermarket in Tilaran was going to drill down into the twon's aquafier to drain their waste water,

Pali supermarket in Tilaran was set to drill down into the town's aquafier to drain their waste water.

Pali is a national supermarket chain that has stores all of Costa Rica, including on the middle of Tilaran. Recently it set up an extensive drilling rig in its parking lot. “Supposedly the idea,” writes Ed Yurika in a recent Fuentes Verdes email newsletter, “was to dig a hole to put their aquas residuales in. Now if I have this right those are the waste fluids that come from washing down their butcher shop and vegetables and floors and whatever else they clean.”

So why is that a problem?

“Tilaran is essentially built over a lot of water,” writes Ed. “The aquifer below is extensive. So if one perforates this aquifer and dumps aquas residuales down that hole, I would ask what happens to the water supply of Tilaran?”

What, indeed? Check with Fuentes Verdes to see how both these stories will end.