The Blooming of Lake Atitlán

Lake Atitlán by (photo by Harris & Goller)

Lake Atitlán by (photo by Harris & Goller)

Panajachel unites and digs with defiance

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.

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. (see sidebar on page 110)*
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 … .”

* Editor note: Lake Amatitlán, located some 16 km. south of Guatemala City, is the fourth largest lake in the country. A railway track was constructed on the embankment at the narrowest point thus connecting both lakeshores and dividing the lake into two basins with different physical, chemical and biological characteristics. The western basin receives pollution loads from the capital as well as from the whole watershed area via the Villalobos River, which consists of some 75,000 tons of dissolved wastes, including fertilizers. The river also dumps approximately 500,000 tons of sediment into the lake yearly. In 1800 the average depth of the lake measured 33 m, in 1996 the depth was 18 m. The water from this basin is drained by the Michatoya River, which is used for hydroelectric power generation. The most important threats to Lake Amatitlán include nearby high population growth, deforestation for firewood, intensive farming at the shoreline, industrial growth in the catchment area and the wastewater contamination and over fishing.

Still, Lake Amatitlán, with its surrounding valleys, mountains and volcanoes, has a unique landscape that continues to draw visitors as evidenced by its popular recreational areas. There are archaeological remains dating to 2,000 B.C. The town of Amatitlán was founded in 1536 and developed quickly. Since colonial times the lake has been the center for fishing. Its catchment area was the most important site of cochineal production which was the main product for export when industrial chemicals had not yet replaced this natural dye. The lake water was also used for domestic use, irrigation and industrial activities.

For more information about Lake Amatitlán, please contact the Comité del Lago de Amatitlán,;
This information was based on information obtained from Global Nature Fund (GFD), save the lakes of the world:


  • italo morales

    I take so personal what´s happening to Atitlan. Lake Atitlan for me has always been a state of mind. It had to do with me. I never went there and felt I was anywhere. It always overwhelmed me. The magnitud of its beauty left me speechless. This is a mayor catastrophe, not only geographical but psychological por us guatemalans, as if we didnt have enough things to feel bad about.

  • great article!

    Hope more people start helping for this noble cause

  • richard dupree and family

    After traveling in south and central america I met Ling and we decided to have ower two lovely kids, Tai Balam and Xara Mei here at this lake. It being the most wonderful and magical nest that we had ever found. After 20 yrs. and the most rewarding experince ever we still feel the same way about Lake Atitlan and its lovely and accepting people. We and the International Community are commited to cleaning up the mess.Please come and share Atitlan with us!!!!

  • Eco-Tek Could Provide Solution for Dying Lake Atitlan

    Garbage piles up, raw sewage dumped in lake, no water treatment plants

    By Greg Szymanski, JD
    March 8, 2010

    There is no excuse for garbage pile up and unsanitary water conditions at Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalen Highlands.

    Whether the lake is in pristine shape or whether it’s showing signs of being nothing more than a big toilet and garbage dump as it is now, water treatment plants should have been built all around the lake long ago.

    Of course, the immediate needs of the 60,000 Mayans living on the shoreline must be met first and there are number of missionary and relief groups in the process of doing just that

    But if there is no lake, there is no shoreline. If there is no lake, there are no Mayans. If there is no lake, there are no fish and fishing profits. If there is no lake, there is no tourism and $30 million annually coming in from the tourist trade.

    If there is no lake, there are, of course, no Evangelicals or Catholics around to preach the gospel with loud speakers and buckets of what may be toxic holy water.

    If there is no lake, there are no New Age people sitting on the rocks preaching love and waiting for the age of enlightenment to arrive. If there is no lake, there are no massage parlors to ease the aching bones of those who write about the beauty of the ancient Mayan people. If there is no lake, there are no churches to visit in order to pray about the dying lake and the lack of fresh potable water.

    If there is no lake, there is no nothing!

    Simply put, if the long term projects for implementing water treatment plants and garbage disposal systems aren’t started immediately, everyone including the rich and poor ought to just put all their dreams and hopes in a big sad sack, put all their earthly belongings in a big suit case and head for the hills.


    Because the cyanobacteria outbreak that hit the lake in October 2009 in the form of a large green algae blob covering 85 per cent of the lake is a serious matter that threatens the lives of everyone there.

    This type of outbreak, which isn’t going away anytime soon, is not only going on at Lake Atitlan but there are fresh water lakes all over the world being attacked by pollution, including lakes in America.

    To show how dangerous cyanobacteria can be here is an excerpt of a report not known by the people at Atitlan from the state of New Hampshire, experiencing the same toxic bacteria outbreaks in some of its lakes.

    What You Should Know
    Recent attention has been directed toward cyanobacteria Cyanobacteria in New Hampshire lakes and ponds. The presence of cyanobacteria in recreational waters is a great concern of the DES Beach Program. Blooms of these primitive cyanobacteria have caused adverse health affects, even death, in livestock, domestic animals and humans.

    Beach Advisory of Cyanobacteria Recreational Exposure
    Cyanobacteria blooms are aesthetically displeasing in sight, odor and taste, as well as potentially toxic to domestic animals, livestock, waterfowl and humans. Cyanobacteria are a potential public health danger because they may produce toxins, collectively referred to as “Cyanotoxins,” that can be released into the water when cells die or are consumed by organisms in the food chain.

    However, the amount of toxin produced varies over time and from lake to lake. A cyanobacteria bloom may produce very little or no toxin in one lake and a later bloom in the same lake could produce a large toxin concentration. Unfortunately, no known method exists for predicting the toxin content of a cyanobacteria bloom. These cyanotoxins target the liver, kidney, the central nervous system, and skin irritants. All cyanotoxins can cause both acute and chronic illnesses. Acute effects, such as skin and mucous membrane irritations, can occur after short term exposure with water containing these toxins. Chronic effects, such as liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage, can occur over a long period of time from water ingestion containing toxins.

    Drinking Water Exposure
    The Groundwater and Drinking Water Source Protection Program provides regulatory and non-regulatory tools to protect groundwater and sources of public drinking water. The program works closely with water systems, municipalities, residents and organizations to ensure adequate quantity and quality of New Hampshire’s drinking water and is aware of cyanotoxins. However, at this time it is not known whether cyanobacteria are a significant problem for New Hampshire water systems, other than as a source of taste and odor problems. More information is available in the fact sheet Cyanobacteria and Drinking Water: Guidance for Public Water Systems.

    You can help keep the cyanobacteria from forming in the first place. Research indicates that their numbers increase as the nutrients in the water increase. To reduce the chances of a bloom occurring, reduce the amount of nutrients, such as phosphates, that enter the water. Homeowners can help by testing their soils before applying fertilizers and, if they must apply a fertilizer, making sure that they apply only what they need. The NH Shore land Protection Act prohibits the use of fertilizer closer than 25 feet from shore. Also, between 25 and 250 feet from shore, only low phosphate, slow release nitrogen fertilizer may be used. Keeping your septic system maintained will also help keep nutrients from leaching through the soil into nearby streams or lakes.

    With those serious words in mind, the first step is to build a number of waste water treatment plants.

    Of course, the Guatemalen government and its U.S. partners are going to cry poverty while issuing reports that15 treatment plants at a cost of $350 million are needed to solve the problem.

    Realizing government most often talks first and thinks later, the $350 million figure seems a bit high. It also gives off the impression that the task is a financial impossibility considering the state of the Guatemalen economy, not to mention the decline of the once powerful dollar.

    Looking at the other side of the coin, supposedly Spain and the U.S. have already allocated $39 million for the Atitlan water problems.

    But, if so, where is the money?

    Where is the progress since we know nothing has even started happening seven months after the algae bloom made Atitlan stink like a big bathroom. It’s about time people in Atitlan start telling the government what to do and not the other way around.

    What if we told the officials 15 water treatment plants could be built at a fraction of the $39 million? What if they could be built for say $10 million, $5 million, $3 million or even less?

    What if they could be built without being chemically based facilities harmful to the environment?

    What if we told them the yearly maintenance costs could be less than $5,000 a year while providing a host of jobs for the local people?

    Would they listen? If you have doubts, send them a copy of this story. Translate it into Spanish. Make sure the big shots listen to this.

    There is a waste water management company in British Columbia called Eco-Tek that just built a non-chemically waster water treatment plant in Havana for $150,000 in 2006.

    The company’s chief operating officer has been in contact with the Arctic Beacon and after looking at the Atitlan situation for the last week, he is very excited about getting involved. He added no one from Gautemala has bothered to contact his company even though the situation at Lake Atitlan is life threatening not only for the lake but its people and wildlife.

    One would think with a situation so grave all possibilities would have been explored.

    Hopefully better late than never.

    “In short, yes. This is something we can help with,” said Patrick Meyer, chief operations officer of Eco-TeK Ecological Technologies, Inc. “Panajachel is reputed to be about 14,000 people. That’s far too many people to be going without water treatment. So, Panajachel did have a collection system and an existing site for sewage treatment. That makes things much easier and less expensive.

    “The more I think about this opportunity the more excited I get. We have a low-cost opportunity to make a major change, a significant improvement on what is currently happening.”

    Meyer said he was looking forward to opening up a line of communication with those in Lake Atitlan working on the problem. He added he was going to immediately contact his Cuban connections to see if this might help open up discussions with Guatemala..

    Meyer went on to say:

    “Also, take into consideration our facilities are not just about treating sewage; they’re about water re-use. We clean water to high enough standards that the water may be re-used for agricultural purposes. In Havana we created food producing gardens and an orchard as part of the project. Using this water for irrigation will reduce the toxic run-off from farms the area is presently experiencing.

    “Costs for our system are minimal in warm climates. Our system is Havana would be most similar. It treats 300m3/day and cost $150,000. Further details of that project can be viewed at

    “As an aside. A key consideration with any mechanical system is to keep maintenance costs in mind. Traditional sewage treatment systems can be extremely expensive when it comes to replacement parts. For our Havana project we really broke down the process and simplified it to eliminate most of the high-cost components. We estimated that operations/maintenance would cost $5,000 per year but I’d be surprised if it amounted to more than $2,000. Since then we’ve done further work on simplifying our system to the point that its hardly recognizable as a sewage treatment facility. Operation costs of the treatment facility should be zero.

    “Vital information at the outset is two-fold. Understanding the waste we’re treating, and knowing that there is a source of revenue that can pay for the expenses. I would hope they would contact us or we can make initial inquiries as well now that we know they need help.”

    Here is more information about Eco-Tek:

    ECO-TEK is an environmental leader in handling waste water through purely biological means.

    While most wastewater treatment facilities treat with chemicals and dispose of treated waste into our natural environment ECO-TEK builds fully biological systems. We use no chemicals and produce useful products at the end of our process.

    We can build ZERO-impact waste water treatment facilities.

    Cleans Water

    The system produces safe, clean water and bio-solids for reuse in a number of applications such as irrigation and industrial process water.


    The systems are contained within a greenhouse or solarium filled with lush vegetation. Extensive aeration produces an odorless environment allowing the systems to be located in the center of communities.

    Simply Built

    The systems are built using reliable equipment and highly durable, lightweight components that are easy to assemble with unskilled labour.

    Mimics Nature

    The processes are chemical free and are resilient due to a diverse aquatic ecosystem.

    Grows Plants

    The system is designed to turn sewage into clean water, soil and plants. These are in the form of aquatic pond plants, flowers, tree seedlings, and plant starts.

    Reusing Waste water as a Resource

    ECO-TEK was established 1992 by Kimron Rink to promote social, ecological and economic sustainability in communities; creating sustainable ”planetary villages” using ecological technologies.

    ECO-TEK presently focuses on Solar Aquatics System™ and other ecologically engineered technologies to reclaim water and nutrients from sewage and use these constituents to grow bio-regionally appropriate, regenerative plant material.

    ECO-TEK incorporates cutting edge sustainable building principles into every project. Sustainable design and construction results in solar heated, low energy, heat recovering solariums for the Solar Aquatics System

    ECO-TEK is the leader in ecological water reclamation in Canada. Although our focus has been on western Canada we have experience abroad as well.

    In 2006 Eco-Tek completed a Havana Urban sewage collection systems flow by gravity to creeks and streams of the Havana Metropolitan Park. This pilot aqua-culture waste treatment facility was designed and built to reclaim this wastewater for reuse as irrigation water for organic urban agriculture and to grow flowers for export to Canada.

    Editor’s Note: See more of Greg’s stories below on Atitlan. If you want to help raise money, awareness and meet the immediate needs of the Mayans, contact gregbeacon at Look for a new word wide web site coming out in two weeks, galvanizing interests worldwide to see the Mayans and Lake Atitlan are treated fairly. Also, a new weekly radio show will be broadcast highlight Atitlan and the plight of all indigenous groups in North, South and Central America.

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