Veronica Sheehan (left) visited LC in September.
She, along with a group of concerned citizens, knew that her Costa Rican town’s drinking water supply, their quality of life and their health would be severely impacted by a proposed agricultural project, but they weren’t sure how to stop it.
She learned a big part of the answer when then-University of Lynchburg student Marley Connor ’12 gave a talk on water in a nearby town. Sheehan told Marley she needed her professor’s help.
Dr. Tom Shahady, professor of environmental science, worked with Sheehan to show that the project would have devastating effects on the flow of the river and its insect life.
“After many trips to Costa Rica for me … and analysis of river flow, wildlife, and water quality, Veronica and a core group of environmentalists were able to get the case to the supreme court (Corte Suprema de Justicia de Costa Rica), and we recently won the case,” Dr. Shahady said.
“She was told she could never beat this group of corporations and that her work would ostracize her family from the community. She ignored all of this and persevered. It is quite a story of dedication to environmental activism and Costa Rica. They believe this will set a good precedent for river protection in the future.”
The LC connection started when Marley did an internship at a University of Georgia research station in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Monteverde is a protected cloud rainforest with pristine rivers and is a popular ecotourism destination.
Marley Connor, a Spanish major with an environmental science minor, had done research on water quality and presented talks in Spanish at both Monteverde and Guacimal, a small town about half way between Monteverde and the Pacific Coast, where Sheehan was responsible for the town’s drinking water.
The area is under threat because agribusiness has been shifting to the Pacific slope due to demand from Asia for Costa Rican produce and cheap land, Dr. Shahady said.
Sheehan, who has dual US and Mexican citizenship, met with Dr. Shahady and convinced him to do some water studies and provide a report for the legal counsel this environmental group had secured pro bono to represent their town.
Dr. Shahady, who was on sabbatical in 2013-14, made several trips to Costa Rica to take water flow measurements and record the insect life in the Veracruz River. He was able to show that the proposed project, which had permission to use up to 90 percent of the river’s flow in the dry season, would have detrimental effects on both the flow and insect life.
In an email from Costa Rica, Sheehan said that the agricultural group wanted to water crops and produce chicken by withdrawing huge amounts of water from the Veracruz River.
“Dr. Shahady was there at every step and without his work, his willingness, his belief that people working together can still make a difference, and that science needs to be used to make this world a better place, we would not have had any data testifying to the high water quality of this river,” Sheehan said. “The developers stated there would be no effect on the flora or fauna on this ecosystem (as if nothing lived there).”
“The Supreme Court ruled ‘partially’ in favor of the river and stated it was evident to anyone that leaving only 16 percent of the river´s flow would have an impact on the ecosystem and there needed to be environmental studies before taking more than 200,000 liters per day out of a river. The ruling was ‘partial’ because the Court indicated the developers could take 74 l/s (not the 163 l/s they wanted), but only if they did all the appropriate environmental studies, which they may try to do.
“… This ruling sets a very important precedent as most of the rivers in Costa Rica are at risk either from irrigation projects or from hydroelectric plants.
“The work that Dr. Shahady has begun needs to continue … as water extractions and diversions are not the only problems. There are severe threats to water quality due to contamination by a large pig farm and by untreated water from the tourism that flocks to Monteverde every year; therefore, the bioindicator index Tom is working on and that reflects the realities of the streams in Costa Rica will become an important tool in the defense of other rivers.”
Dr. Shahady plans to use aquatic insects to create a water quality indicator specific to this part of Costa Rica.
“Dr. Shahady is the kind of person that makes one believe that human kind can turn things around,” Sheehan said. “Our town feels blessed to have him on the side of our Mother Earth.”
For his part, Dr. Shahady was glad to be working on a project where he felt he could make a difference. “You can use your expertise and it worked,” he said. “Wow, it can work.”
If you are interested in studying abroad in Costa Rica, check out our winter break program for more information.