Unsightly waters in the West – BELPO raises more questions about Chalillo

Hydropower is praised as a form of renewable energy, but at the same time, environmentalists are concerned over possible negative impacts on the environment, as well as public health hazards to which the surrounding communities and those downstream of the dam could be exposed.

Those concerns resurfaced late last week, when the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) and WeBAD observed that the waters of the majestic Macal River, which runs between the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, were a dirty, milky brown, apparently colored by clay sediments.

BELPO’s vice president, Candy Gonzalez, forwarded three aerial photos to Amandala first thing Monday morning.

Gonzalez said that the two aerial shots at Chalillo were taken on 8 August 2009, and the third shot was taken on August 4, at the wooden bridge crossing, showing the same coloration way downstream.

We observed the sharp contrast in the color of the water before and after the Chalillo dam, represented by the cross-hatching in the accompanying photo.

“This proves that the color of our river does not come from the rains, run-off from the Mountain Pine Ridge, pig farms or any other story that BECOL expects us to believe; it comes from the Chalillo reservoir,” said Gonzalez.

“Any clue what is going on here?” she questioned.

Amandala forwarded the photos to Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria to see if he could provide some answers.

Alegria told our newspaper that this is the first time he has seen the waters with that coloration – which he assumes is from excessive siltation due to one of two sources: a flushing of Chalillo to wash out sediments or from severe erosion from the adjacent lands.

There have been times in the past, said Alegria, when the river would appear a dark (but not so opaque) brown, but that would be due to the naturally occurring iron in the soil that accumulates in excess at the back of the dam. He said that they have sent some of those water samples abroad for confirmation testing, and the results are due anytime now.

Alegria said that it is possible that the murky waters observed last week could have come from a flushing exercise at Chalillo—which he said BELPO is suggesting in its inquiries. BECOL, said the Chief Environmental Officer, should flush the reservoir once a year, preferably while the siltation level in the river is already high.

As to questions from Gonzalez about the quality of the drinking water being consumed by area residents, Amandala was able to speak with Mr. Eledoro Lewis, assistant supervisor and area manager in San Ignacio for Belize Water Services (BWS), and he explained that BWS sources the drinking water for that municipality from wells, which means that the water goes through a natural filtration process before they use it. The river siltation, claimed Lewis, is not a problem for BWS.

Alegria told our newspaper that his officers would investigate BELPO’s report sent to us Monday, and he should be able to have a reply for us in about a week.

Amandala tried to reach BECOL’s Operations Manager, Stephen Usher, for an explanation from BECOL’s end; however, we were advised that he was in a meeting and when we called back, the lines were busy.