AyA on Water Cuts in Guanacaste: “If it were as easy as digging a well we would do it, but it’s a water supply issue”

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Residents of several communities in Guanacaste have approached the Voice of Guanacaste asking why water cuts have increased significantly in thee last two weeks.

According to Costa Rica’s aqueducts and sewers institute (AyA) at least 25 communities with almost 5,000 people have been receiving water in cistern trucks.

AyA says El Niño is the biggest culprit and has caused a drought in the province. Water flow in rivers decreased and, as a result, aquifers have less water. But, could the institute have been better prepared for the drought?

The Voice of Guanacaste spoke about this and other issues with AyA’s director of production and distribution for Guanacaste, Alejandro Contreras. This is an excerpt from the interview.

Could the recent rains in Guanacaste have a positive impact on supply and water cuts?

That will depend on the intensity of the rain and each aquifer. Some aquifers, mainly the coastal ones, recover quickly. It starts to rain and you see the effects in underground water, but others are slower.

Does that mean that the water cuts are going to last longer because the rains don’t have the immediate impact necessary?

That’s right. In the case of Nicoya, from experience and from what I know about the system, I know that in April and May it starts to rain well (at least once every other day) and rivers and wells recover quickly.

It’s all going to depend on how the weather behaves. We are in the middle of the problem. If it were as easy as digging a well and drawing out water, we would do it, but it’s an issue of water supply.

How many communities have been affected in the province?

We have a matrix where we see the systems that are having problems and those that may have eventually. We have serious cases of water shortages in Nicoya, Maquenco (Nicoya), Tamarindo (Santa Cruz), La Cruz, Quebrada Grande de Liberia, Cañas and Colorado de Abangares.

What are the reasons for this shortage? We know that El Niño is one of them, but does it have anything to do with AyA’s infrastructure?

No. It’s not an infrastructure issue. There may be some operational problems because of energy issues because almost 100 percent of the aqueducts depend on electricity and one goes hand in hand with the other. But the rest is a production problem. The sources (rivers) have less water.

In the case of Nicoya, the water flow in Potrero river – which is where we extract water in order to treat it and make it drinkable – decreased drastically. It has parts that are cut off (almost dry) and that means less water for treating at the treatment plant

We need the pant to process more than 40 liters per second and it’s not even at 15.

Is this the first time that the river dried up so much that it can’t be used? How has AyA reduced the risk caused by droughts?

The plant in Nicoya (which draws water from this river) is more than 30 years old. When it was built, the river had enough water for the whole city. As the population grew, demand increased and droughts have forced us to use subterranean water, and subterranean is limited.

It’s not that measures haven’t been taken. Three years ago, two new wells started operating with a water flow of 25 liters between the two of them, but now they are both at 15. There isn’t an infrastructure problem with the wells, it’s the subterranean water that is having problems.

We went from having the treatment plant and one well to having the plant and seven wells operating since the construction of the plant. The rivers are a type of monitor of what is happening underground.

Did you underestimate the impact El Niño would have this year?

In part, we project what might happen, but when El Niño is coming we can’t determine what percentage of rain we will lose. We can’t project climate conditions. They can be so aggressive that they ruin any data point.

So is the conclusion that AyA doesn’t have the raw material (water) it needs to work?

Exactly. There is no raw material (water). Right now we need to pump 110 liters per second for Nicoya and we aren’t even 90. We need an additional 20-25 liters per second.

Is Nicoya the most affected zone in Guanacaste?

It’s one of the most affected areas, but the coast of Santa Cruz and Tamarindo are also seeing serious impacts. The effects may be felt more in Nicoya because it’s the most populous city.

Yamileth Astorga — president of AyA— said a few months ago that Nicoya was having serious problems with available water. Is Nicoya facing a more long term risk?

Yes. The way that climate and the rain deficits have evolved, we could face the risk of a more serious problem, but the institution is making an effort to see how to migrate to other zones that could have a more secure water supply.

What can AyA do to not only reduce the impact but also the risks of shortages in the future?

One way is through the investments that are being made at the local level (wells, for example) and having enough water extraction to sustain the system. Long term, we are trying to launch projects that could bring water from 12-15 miles away. It sounds crazy, but it’s the option we have.

That means checking out other aquifers and having a good relationship with communities,

There are a lot of ideas on the problem of over-extracting water. Some think that hotels are taking the water, and agriculture, illegal wells…What is creating the most pressure?

I can tell you how much water we get from the Potrero – Caimital aquifer, for example, but I can’t say how much water the private sector or even the illegal wells are extracting. We don’t know that.

The aquifers are like a large pot underground and their sustainability depends on how much water reaches it and how much is drawn out. That’s why it’s important to have control over illegal wells and illegal extractions.”

What specific recommendations would you give the population during periods of drought in order to properly use water?

Stop watering plants, washing the car and start using water rationally. On average, I can say that water consumption among the Nicoya population is about 15-18 cubic meters per month. That’s 18,000 liters of water in a month. That’s a ton of water. We could live with less and that would help water last longer.

María Fernanda Cruz contributed reporting