Jacó moves to reduce pollution in its beach water

The community of Jacó, which is hosting an international surfing championship in August, is facing a double whammy. The problems are similar but not as grave as that facing Brazil which is hosting the Olympic Games this year: The zika virus and pollution.

Jacó on the central Pacific coast is in the Municipalidad de Garabito. Officials learned this week of an outbreak of the zika virus. So far there are 16 confirmed cases in one section of Jacó.

Health workers are responding to kill mosquitoes which carry the disease.

The pollution is a long-standing problem well known to municipal officials.

The municipal mayor said just before he took office May 1 that a modern sewerage system was one of his priorities.

Jacó beach waters exceed by far the maximum amount of fecal coliform contamination for safe human recreation, according to data from the Laboratorio Nacional de Aguas at the Instituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados.

The state water company routinely checks the water at beaches as well as drinking water.

The problem is not unique to Jacó. Many beach communities have similar problems. Pollution always has been Costa Rica’s dirty little secret, something infrequently discussed in a country that depends for much of its income on international tourism.

Jacó officials plan short-term and long-term efforts to solve the problem, the mayor, Tobías Murillo, said. He is the mayor of Garabito, the canton in which Jacó is located.

He said Thursday that the municipality will be sending inspectors to all those houses that do not have a septic tank.

“We are giving the owners 15 days to build them,” he said. “Otherwise the property might be declared inhabitable and prone to demolition. There are about 480 houses in this situation and most of them belong to slums. These people send their waste water directly into the sea and help increase the pollution levels.”

The long-term strategy is to pressure the state water and sewerage institute to put in a modern system.  Murillo said he wants to see this completed in two years.

“At the municipality, we are already demanding these works to be done,” he said. “It is a commitment of AyA that should have been accomplished 15 years ago,” he added referring to the water company by its common short form.

The state water company is the same entity that checks beach water and drinking water for bacterial content.

The most polluted areas in Jacó are the mouths of ríos Madrigal, Naranjal and Copey, as well as the estuary. These areas show a major contamination increase during rainy season and much less in the dry one.

The problem is no secret to the water company officials. An academic article in 2009 by Darner Adrián Mora Alvarado, a water company lab employee reported on water samples from 2002 to 2008 and looked

Jaco and its popular beach.

Jaco and its popular beach.

at results from 1986 to 1987 and from 1996 to 2000.

Mora reported on a system that has categories ranking the sanitary conditions of the beach water. The scale ranges from AA with an average of 10 fecal coliforms per 100 milliliters to D with 500 fecal coliforms or more per 100 milliliters of water.

Tests showing water in the highest two categories, C and D, are considered unsuitable for swimming, the paper says. Historically, tests in Jacó have produced results as high as 91,000 fecal coliforms per 100 milliliters, Mora said in his academic paper.

Still, Acueductos y Alcantarillados experts warn that evaluating bacterial content in beach water is complex. The state firm did provide a summary of tests to a reporter. Samples taken in Jacó Feb. 25, 2015, show the fecal concentrations of 13,000 coliforms  per 100 milliliters at the Río Madrigal mouth, 4,900 at Río Naranjal, 13,000 at Río Copey, 7,900 in the estuary and 35,000 in the river next to the Centro Vacacional Bancosta S.A.

About five months later, on July 22, the data showed an increase. Río Madrigal showed 35,000 coliforms per 100 milliliters, Río Naranjal 33,000, Río Copey 79,000, the estuary 43,000 and 24,000 in the mouth next to Bancosta.

Finally, the samples from last Feb. 15 show much lower yet unsatisfactory pollution levels: Río Madrigal 1,100, Río Naranjal 2,400, Copey 1,700, estuary 2,800, and 170 in the mouth next to Bancosta.

Murillo said he considered the polluted waters a risk for the organization of the upcoming World Surfing Games taking place in Jacó from Aug. 6 to 14.  But he said he did not trust the results from the Acueductos y Alcantarillados lab.

“I mean, they granted Puntarenas an ecological blue flag award and, if you know the place, you would agree with me that the estuary is basically an open sewer,” he said. “I know there is pollution in Jacó, but to be honest, I don’t find those studies to be 100 percent reliable.”

There has been a major positive development. A sewage facility in La Carpio in San José has gone online treating waste from about 35,000 homes. The water otherwise would flow untreated into the Río Tarcoles and empty into the Gulf of Nicoya upstream from Jacó. More hookups are scheduled.

The surfing games are expected to bring thousands of spectators and many participants to Jacó where there are frequent competitions.

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