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Unraveling the Effects of Dams in Costa Rica

Thirty years ago, in Costa Rica’s Palo Verde National Park, the wetlands flooded regularly and eco-tourists could view thousands of waterfowl. Today, invasive cattail plants cover portions of the wetland which has subsequently dried up and become colonized by hardwoods. Consequently, the number of birds has fallen dramatically.

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The number of birds on Palo Verde National Park has fallen dramatically. (Image: anywherecostarica.com)

Some people blame the dams built in the 1970s which introduced hydrological power and created a large irrigation district in the remote region. Dr. Rafael Muñoz-Carpena, Professor and University of Florida Water Institute Faculty Fellow and his research team are performing environmental studies on the wetlands, trying to unravel the effects of the dams and how to revert some of the damage. Rafael explains, “We have a situation where modern engineering brought about social improvements, helpful renewable resources, and irrigation for abundant food production. But the resulting environmental degradation threatens a natural region in a country that depends on eco-tourism.”

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“A vast network of mangrove-rich swamp, lagoons, marshes, grassland, limestone outcrops, and forests comprise the 32,266 acre Palo Verde National Park.” (Image and text: anywherecostarica.com)

Are The Dams Responsible?

Dr. Muñoz-Carpena says because of lack of historical data it’s difficult to untangle and separate all the factors that have caused the environmental degradation. He adds, “Thirty years ago Palo Verde National Park was part of a large wetland system which was important to all of Central America because it contained many endangered species and was a wintering ground for migratory birds from North America. The Palo Verde field station on the edge of the wetland, operated by the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS), attracted birdwatchers and wetland scientists from all over the world.”

In the 1970’s, with international funding, a dam was built in the mountains to collect water from the humid side of Costa Rica in order to generate hydroelectric power. It was clean, abundant, and strategically important.  With the water transferred to the dry side of the country, a large irrigation district was created to not only produce important crops to the region like rice and beans, but to distribute the land among small parcel settlers.

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“Birding is the principal draw of visitors to the park.” (Image and text: anywherecostarica.com)

Over the years, however, the wetland area slowly degraded to the point where its Ramsar Convention wetland classification is under question. Rafael says that understanding the causes of the degradation, the impacts of the human system, and how the natural and human systems are linked, is the big question of his research, and there are many factors to consider. “The release of the water, ground and surface water (over)use, agriculture, human development, and a larger population are all factors that could contribute to this degradation. Everything compounds in the downstream coastal wetlands. In collaboration with OTS and other partner organizations and universities, we are trying to disentangle these different drivers.”

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Understanding the causes of the degradation, the impacts of the human system, and how the natural and human systems are linked, is the big question of this research. (Image: anywherecostarica.com)

A Lack of Historical Data

One of the challenges the researchers face is to gather a sufficient amount of temporal and spatial information about what happened in the past forty years.  There are no public repositories of data to tap, and the information is spotty and hard to access. Rafael says, “Thanks to the collaboration of many local partners, we have been able to gather enough information to stitch together a large database out of a collection of non-systematic studies. The biggest challenge is to harmonize data that has been collected by different people in non-consistent ways.” This large database now contains the best long-term record possible for key hydrologic variables: river flow, groundwater stage, precipitation, and evapotranspiration.

The team is also using remote sensing sources to try to obtain time-series data for land-use and vegetation change, and will have those data ground-truthed through instruments that are collecting similar time-series data. Rafael says, “The idea is to build a network that will allow us to overlap some of the previous data sources with our own, validate and upscale the ground data with remote sensing sources, enabling us to put together a detailed picture of what happened.”

Next Week:  Find out how the researchers established connectivity in such a remote area,  some of the problems associated with the research, and how the team has addressed those issues.

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