Guatemalan lake looks to Tahoe for solutions

Eric Heinz
Officials are looking to Lake Tahoe, seen here from the Tahoe Rim Trail, to help repair damage from wastewater and sewage that's poured into Lake Atitlán in Guatamala.
File photo |

During the 2013 Lake Tahoe Summit on Aug. 19, experts met with Guatemalan representatives to discuss the problems of the area’s largest, and severely impaired, lake.

Using Lake Tahoe as an exemplary model, Sudeep Chandra, a limnologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, brought a group of Guatemalan experts to the summit in order to use Tahoe’s work as an example to help them repair the damage from wastewater and sewage poured into Lago de Atitlán, or Lake Atitlán.

The lake has been rapt with nutrient-depleting, poorly treated wastewater and sewage as well as sediment runoff that has made a permissible environment for toxic algae blooms, according to a news release from UNR based on Chandra’s work.

At Lake Atitlán, Chandra said the regulations are “40 years behind” those that govern Lake Tahoe.

Chandra said through sewage and wastewater effluence, nitrates and phosphorus have been pumped into Atitlán. Much of the wastewater and sewage was poorly treated or untreated, the release stated.

A few years ago, after decades of pumping sewage into Lake Atitlán, the lake turned green, Chandra said, filled with the blooms that kill oxygen for plan and animal life.

“Even if you had treatment plants to clean up the water going into the lake, the cost of really good treatment is really expensive,” Chandra said. “The lesson here was pump (the wastewater) over the basin. It’s high in nitrogen, and we’re hoping farmers in Atitlán would be willing to take some of it.”

Invasive species have killed off native animals in Lake Atitlán that could have helped mitigate the ecosystem’s problem, Chandra said.

A five-day trip to the Tahoe summit that ended Aug. 25 included researchers from Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, South Lake Tahoe Public Utility District, Guatemalan engineers and representatives meeting to discuss some of the issues Atitlán faces.

“(Progress) is a matter of a couple different things that are complex and environmental policies that are trying to protect the lake,” Chandra said.

Two major hurricanes that hit the area also caused large deposits of sediment and other items to impair the lake.

An organization, United for Lake Atitlán, received $1.2 million in funding from the United States Agency for International Development to fund United for Lake Atitlán to help with research and remediation procedures.

“This could have been what Lake Tahoe was if we continued to pump sewage into the lake,” Chandra said, adding that all of Tahoe’s effluent treated water is pumped out of the basin.

There are reportedly about 250,000 to 400,000 people living in the Atitlán basin. Most of the population is made of indigenous Mayans who live off the lake for its fisheries. The rest of the economy is primarily derived from tourism and recreation.

The lake itself is located in a similar geographic area as Lake Tahoe, sitting at 5,110 feet in elevation with mountains surrounding it.

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