Guatemalans learn from Tahoe to help save their Lake Atitlan

CABNR's Sudeep Chandra leads team of scientists in USAID collaboration

8/30/2013 - By: Mike Wolterbeek
Chandra helps Tahoe inform Atitlan Sudeep Chandra, of the Department of Natural Resources, assists a Japanese researcher with a camera-equipped submersible device used in her research at Lake Tahoe. Photo by Mike Wolterbeek, University of Nevada, Reno.

Former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore said, in his speech to scientists, elected officials, environmentalists, business leaders, fire department officials, students and others in the audience of the 2013 Lake Tahoe Summit, that what we've learned at Tahoe can help inform the rest of the world to protect their resources and communities.

Sudeep Chandra, limnologist at the University of Nevada, Reno and a leading Lake Tahoe scientist, has assembled a team of researchers and is doing just that - using the knowledge gained at Lake Tahoe in the past 40 years to help Guatemala repair and protect Lake Atitlan, a high-mountain lake similar to Lake Tahoe but plagued by toxic algae blooms caused by decades of untreated sewage and uncontrolled erosion of sediment entering the lake.

"In 2009, the Global Nature Fund designated Guatemala's Lake Atitlan as its "Threatened Lake of the Year," Chandra said. "Since then we've established protocols and monitoring based on what we've learned at Lake Tahoe. We've made significant progress with the help of the USAID Office and the Guatemala Office of Economic Growth."

The project, United for Lake Atitlan, received $1.2 million in funding from USAID, the United States Agency for International Development.

As an extension of the project, Chandra brought a group of Guatemalans to attend the Tahoe Summit and spend a week touring projects around the lake, meeting with public and private agencies and seeing first-hand the systems in place to help preserve Lake Tahoe. The Guatemalans' visit was funded by the University of Nevada, Reno and the Desert Research Institute. Chandra's team includes Alan Hayvaert of the DRI and Eliška Rejmánková of the University of California, Davis.

In the 5-day visit that ended Aug. 25, Tahoe researchers met with Guatemalan researchers, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency officials met with Guatemalan policy makers, farmers here met with coffee growers from Guatemala, Guatemalan engineers met with engineers from the South Lake Tahoe Public Utility District and the League to Save Lake Tahoe met with the Lake Atitlan nongovernmental organization trying to save their lake, Amigos Del Lago (Friends of the Lake).

Part of the group included the owners of a coffee growing company that is a major supplier to Starbucks. They toured farmlands in the Carson Valley that receive treated effluent from South Lake Tahoe, effluent that has been exported from the Tahoe basin since the late 1960s.

"It is a fact that the ranchers who are getting the water are doing better than their neighbors, especially in dry years like this one, so the good use of waste water is possible and good for the ranchers and for the lake," coffee grower Carlos Javier Torrebiarte said.

He believes a similar wastewater export project is needed at Lake Atitlan. He acknowledges a lot of challenges to overcome, including a larger population than Tahoe and the need to educate residents about the problems and opportunities.

"If we do this project it could be a tipping point in the country and can make a big change not only in Atitlan but in all of Guatemala," Torrebiarte said.

The visitors were impressed by their tour of the high desert farmlands, and also the enthusiasm and energy it takes to conserve a place.

"The amount of energy that it has taken, and continues to take, to protect Lake Tahoe is an inspiration for us in Guatemala," Chesley Smith, from Amigos del Lago Atitlan, said. "With the information we have gained from our visit with our Tahoe counterparts, I am sure we can save Lake Atitlan."

"They were amazed to see how green and lush the irrigated areas were compared to the rest of the surrounding areas," Chandra said. "They will be pursuing a major loan to do this, export sewage from the Lake Atitlan basin to coffee fields outside the basin."

Similar to Lake Tahoe, Lake Atitlan is nestled in the mountains with 10,000-foot elevation peaks surrounding it. The lake is 5,100 feet in elevation, 11 miles long, 1,150 feet at the deepest, about 50 square miles of surface with about 60 feet of clarity. Atitlan, their country's second most popular tourist destination, has a population of about 300,000 people living in 12 towns around the lake, with no sewage treatment plants and little control over fertilizers and inorganic products that run into the lake.

"Since 1968 Lake Atitlan has had an accelerated eutrophication process due to the algae and sewage particle loading from the watershed," Chandra said. "We know that there are three species of cynobacteria that contribute to the algae blooms and pathogens that have huge health concerns as this is the water supply for all of the residents.

"Our scientific studies with our Guatemalan institutions have shown that when sewage is added to lake water, there is a 333 percent greater growth of algae. We also know that their deep waters have an oxygen content of zero milligrams per liter... it's anoxic, which allows the algae to grow. Tahoe's deep waters are not quite at zero, but it's getting there."

At Tahoe, sewage is exported out of the Tahoe basin to water treatment plants. Controls on growth and construction practices have been implemented to protect the lake from sediment and other products from entering the lake.

"The solutions for Atitlan may not exactly mirror those at Tahoe, but we hope to use the knowledge we've gained from studying Lake Tahoe to help clean and protect Lake Atitlan," Chandra, whose Limnology Lab is in the University's College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, said. "We know that what we've done for 30 years at Tahoe, the management and watershed practices, have had positive outcomes for Tahoe. It could be a lot worse."

The USAID project, United for Lake Atitlan, has set in motion several important initial elements:

  • bringing stakeholders together
  • building local capacity for recovering the lake's health
  • developing a well-equipped laboratory
  • developing a watershed monitoring program
  • compiling historical data and synthesize with newly collected data

"We also have a goal to develop capacity at the Guatemalan universities to monitor the lake - to develop people power, a new generation of students to gather quantitative data  through sound scientific methods and measurements, Chandra said. "Couple that with crucially needed instrumentation, similar to what we use in our labs and they will be able to accurately monitor the changes of the lake."

The contingent visiting Tahoe from Guatemala included the president of the country's Mayors Association of Guatemala, Antonio Coro, students and researchers from the university, researchers Joram Gill from the University of San Carlos's School of Engineering  and Sanitation; and Ivan Azurdia the Director of the Atitlan Management Authority, an agency similar to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

"We are hopeful that the visit will help solidify the scientific, private sector, and governmental relationships that are needed to conserve Lake Atitlan," Chandra said. "They were impressed with what we've accomplished and I'm enthused and energized. I'm excited to see how they grasped and embraced the ideas and solutions that have worked for us at Lake Tahoe."


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