Government Pardons Illegal Wells in Order to Count Them

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If you built a water well without permits, the Ministry of Environment and Energy’s water department will give you six months to register it.

Minae will apply an amnesty from September 24, 2019 through March 24, 2020 so people can register their illegal wells if they were built before April 2010, which is when new subterranean water regulations took effect.

“It applies to wells built with machinery or special equipment, but not for hand-made wells for domestic use, which are exempt,” Minae said in a statement.

The ministry hopes this measure will help it located more clandestine wells to figure out how much water is extracted without the government’s knowledge, according to a decree published in the official newspaper on July 24.

In 2015, Minae figured there were 40,000 illegal wells in the country, of which 15,000 were in Guanacaste. For water director José Miguel Zeledón, none of the data is reliable because there is no way to quantify them.

In fact, last year the water department found about 100 illegal wells in the country and said that 80% of them were in Guanacaste, though these numbers are estimates.

“This is a way to improve our knowledge of how much water is extracted in the country, update water data, and prepare our water resources for climate change, among other things (related to protecting and managing water)” Zeledón said.

The amnesty program isn’t without critics. It alarmed the Federation of Ecologists (Fecon), which described the measure as the “legalization of subterranean water theft.”

Federation president Henry Picado and Zeledon said better monitoring of illegal wells in the country is needed. But Picado said that the amnesty will lead to excessive extraction of water.

“The fact that there isn’t an inventory shouldn’t be a reason to pardon a crime. The state must be able to request entrance to a property and monitor and conduct censuses to find a more exact number of illegal wells,” Picado said.

In order to register a well, the water department is requesting a sworn declaration stating that the well was built before 2010. The document must indicate the amount of water extracted and include permission for officials to visit the site and review the extraction.

“This declaration is the only method of oversight Minae has over wells that want to become legal,” Zeledón said.

In Guanacaste, wells located along the aquifers of Sardinal, El Coco, Panamá, Playa Hermosa, Mala Noche, Playa Sámara, Huacas, Tamarindo, Potrero-Caimital, Nimboyores and Marbella will not be included in the amnesty program because they are considered the most vulnerable in the province.

“If someone lied and it is proven that they lied, they will be penalized,” the director said. But the only sanction allowed under the water law, which was approved in 1942, is the closure of the well.

This isn’t the first time Minae has applied an amnesty program to legalize illegal wells. In 2002 the ministry legalized 256 wells via amnesty and another 380 in 2010.

Zeledón admits the number of those legalized was low and, he says, many owners prefer to evade Minae’s oversight and remain illegal. But, he said, this time “there is better communication and coordination (than in previous attempts).”