The Blooming of Lake Atitlán

In The Green Felt Jungle, the story is told of a dapper man in pinstripes who rides a Cadillac into Las Vegas one night, seeking the neonized excitement of that gilded city. But he finds little more than a dreary gas station.

“Where is Las Vegas?” he asks the Navajo attendant.

“Right here,” is the answer.

The traveler, it seemed, had pulled into Las Vegas, New Mexico. It would take another nine hours to reach Las Vegas, Nevada.

Lake Atitlán
Harris & Goller
Lake Atitlán

Two Guatemala lakes, Amatitlán and Atitlán, are similarly confused. Occasionally, a tourist, like the Vegas-bound traveler, goes to the wrong place.

Despite pollution, Lake Amatitlán remained pretty throughout its gradual decline.

Lake Atitlán, a bigger and even prettier lake, would also fall under the threat of pollution. In 2005, Hurricane Stan struck the lakeside town of Panajachel, widening the river channel that cut through town and wreaking significant, but not irreparable, damage to its sewage treatment plant.

Entire houses were swept away, carrying a caustic, eclectic debris of everything from tin-laden motherboards to household lye into the lake. But Atitlán was big enough to take a hit. It is 10 times as deep as Amatitlán and has 90 times the volume.

Even today, Atitlán is considered to be largely clean; the annual bass tournament still takes place, and people still swim in the lake, usually without consequence.

Nevertheless, pollution manifested itself at the end of 2008 when an algal carpet suddenly bloomed over vast stretches of the lake. Fed by residues of human coliform, detergent phosphates and other chemicals, the carpet remained for four months. It could return at the end of this year, within weeks after the cessation of the seasonal rains.

For 2009, Atitlán was fatefully named Threatened Lake of the Year by the Global Nature Fund. Though no studies bear it out, there is consensus that Panajachel is the chief polluter. One reason is that, after four years, the treatment plant remains broken. Another is that Pana’s population, already larger than most lakeside towns, is swollen with visitors.

These visitors are Panajachel’s economic mainstay; almost everyone in Pana is dependent, directly or otherwise, on tourism. Indeed, Panajachel is to Las Vegas, Nevada, what the sleepy tourist village at Lake Amatitlán is to Las Vegas, New Mexico. In scale, the potential economic disaster would affect all of Sololá Department and, indeed, all of Guatemala.

“Those visitors may stop coming,” says Californian Sidney Eschenbach, a Pana resident, “unless we rescue the lake, and soon.”

Guatemalan Juan Skinner, who years ago headed one of three governmental agencies responsible for protecting the lake, has asserted that the treatment plant does not need replacing.

“If someone slashes all four tires on your car,” he says, “you can’t drive. But you don’t have to replace the whole car.” Skinner belongs to a grassroots faction that wants to replace the tires, rather than holding out for the estimated Q2.6 million that replacing the plant would cost.

Some of Skinner’s allies, tired of waiting and alarmed by the threat to the lake in terms both economic and aesthetic, took action in September. One morning, a huge earthmover was in the channel, digging a massive, rectangular pit near one of the five effluent pipes emptying into the San Francisco River, which feeds the lake and bisects Panajachel.

Eschenbach, an architect who knew what hiring heavy equipment would cost, began soliciting funds to excavate a shallow trench for phase one of a “constructed wetland” to arrest the eutrophication of the lake. When fully realized, the excavation might become the first of a chain of banana groves in the channel.

Former soldier Félix Churunel, born and raised in Panajachel, joined the effort and urged, with surprising success, many Guatemalans to pony up. When Eschenbach and Churunel linked up with Swiss recycling maven Ursula Bishoff and Guatemalan activist Daniel Salguero, they found themselves leading a movement fed by a latent, widespread impatience over the slow search for a pollution solution.

Coloradan Duncan Aitken, a 26-year resident, was recruited to the movement as a translator for some of the uncounted conferences that took place, post-Stan, to find a remedy. He recalls that advice and material support from Pana’s large expat community were regularly sought.

“There were times when I had to stand up and remind everyone that we [expats] can’t vote.”

Some authorities had balked at constructing an artificial wetland. On the day the digging began, Eschenbach says, one of the officials responsible for protecting the lake showed up and “bizarrely demanded that we stop, and pay for an environmental impact study.”

But it was too late. Support for the project was at critical mass, and the mayor stepped in.
“To his credit,” Eschenbach says, “he saw the wisdom of the project. And he summarily donated Q3,200 of his own money for its continuance.” This was the cost of hiring the equipment for one day. The digging took five days.

Aitken calls this price a bargain. “Proposals have a way of getting expensive over time. And studies, so-called, delay things while the proposals fatten up. Meanwhile, our lake is being trashed.”

Neither Aitken and Eschenbach, nor their Guatemalan allies, apologize for doing something that is technically illegal.

“Better to beg forgiveness after the fact, than beg permission beforehand,” Eschenbach says.

“This is not an expat thing, nor a Guatemalan thing,” Aitken says. “It unites Pana like nothing ever has. Even the poorest of the poor, like the areneros, are solidly behind us, to say nothing of informed tourists.” Areneros make a living removing rocks and sand from the channel. Much of this same sand is now in the constructed wetland, doing filtering duty.

Aitken and Eschenbach insist, however, that the project is a stopgap rather than the ultimate solution. There are five effluent tubes emptying into the river from the west bank alone.

“But one is no longer polluting,” Eschenbach says. “The excavation is cleaning some 70 liters of water a minute through nutrient retention, evaporation and absorption.”

“It’s cleaning every drop it’s getting,” says Felix Churunel, “and putting the phosphates and whatnot to good use.” Two of the other four pipes are upstream. Churunel wants their discharge diverted to the new wetland, since it is “operating under capacity.”

“As a boy,” he adds, “I remember the crystaline streams that crisscrossed the delta where Pana sits. Every house had septic tanks, and there was no contamination to speak of. But then years ago the city talked people into installing drainage. Then they taxed the drainage and never thought of the lake. It’s time to dismantle this useless system, by taking things into our own hands, if we must. And we are, to good effect.”

“We threw in a reverse monkey wrench,” Eschenbach adds. “Atitlán is already cleaner. So there—something’s been done. We’ll keep it clean … .”