Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Blue Water And Eco-Tek Ready To Help Lake Atitlan’s Cyanobacteria, Raw Sewage Problem

Blue Water And Eco-Tek Ready To Help Lake Atitlan’s Cyanobacteria, Raw Sewage Problem
Mar 24, 2010

Blue Water And Eco-Tek Ready To Help Lake Atitlan’s Cyanobacteria, Raw Sewage Problem

Officials holding money know about the two companies, but will serious talks start leading to solutions

By Greg Szymanski, JD
March 24, 2010

Effective cyanobacteria monitoring and water treatment facilities are needed immediately at Lake Atitlan to correct future toxic algae outbreaks like just occurred in 2009.

Despite all the talking, raw sewage is still be dumped daily into Lake Atitlan from more than 60,000 people living on the shoreline in 12 villages and towns surrounding the 30,000 acre volcanic crater-shaped lake.

Reports from other lakes around the world verify algae clean-up, estimated to cost millions at Lake Atitlan, is not good enough since if the root causes aren’t dealt with, the toxic algae only returns, especially during hot summer months.

The recent algae outbreak, covering 85 per cent of the lake with a thick green scum, sent shock waves through the community, bringing a $30 million dollar tourism industry to a halt and creating a nightmare for the indigenous population whose main water source remains undrinkable.

Government reports claim 15 water treatment plants are needed to solve the problem at a whopping cost of $350 million since there is not one plant operational today.

And seven months after the outbreak, despite all the promises and finger pointing, not one plant has been built although the government Monday held a ceremony on the UN’s World Day of Water, saying construction for the first plant will soon begin.

However, one plant isn’t enough and is sort of like treating a terminal cancer patient with two aspirins and hot cup of tea. Before a problem can be solved, it must be understood. Once understood, then a financially feasible plan can be implemented.

With this in mind, the people in charge at Atitlan have failed on both counts. They have failed to implement an effective satellite imaging cyanobacteria monitoring plan and they have failed to look for water treatment plants in their price range.

But hope is on the horizon.

Talks are beginning between two companies, Blue Water Satellite and Eco-Tek, who may have answers to Lake Atitlan’s serious environmental concerns.

Environmental and government officials were recently informed when they were in Atitlan Monday by concerned citizens that Blue water and Eco-Tek are excited to begin tackling the challenges cyanobacteria problems at Lake Atitlan present.

Margaret Dix, a biologist who has studied Lake Atitlan since 1976, has also agreed to open discussions with the two companies, hopefully leading to some positive change in a “Save Lake Atitlan” program bogged down with bureaucratic delays.

“We really hope this leads to positive solutions, bringing together the people making money decisions in Guatemala and two companies who can provide cost effective solutions,” said the head of Save Lake Atitlan Mission, an organization set up to help save the lake and the indigenous people who rely on it for survival.

“If the people who are in charge don’t at least start talking with these two companies – serious talks – it should tell everybody involved that the powers that be really don’t want to do anything.”

CEO Milt Baker of Blue Water had this to say about the world wide problem of cyanobacteria as well as Lake Atitlan specifically:

“We are beginning to explore working with large travel publications, who want us to provide satellite imaging of water bodies, ensuring that tourists are traveling to lakes and rivers not infected with cyanobacteria,” said Baker, adding it doesn’t pay for business or government interests to hide or ignore cyanobacteria problems.

“The internet gives people immediate access to this type of information and it is going to get harder and harder to just ignore a cyanobacteria infected lake as these satellite images become part of travel information and tourist brochures.”

According to reports, faulty and leaky septic systems from hotels and homes around the lake are also contributing the to the raw sewage problem. Baker said his company can also monitor faulty septic systems, which helps control the phosphorus amounts entering the lake, which is the primary food source toxic algae feeds on.

“To be clear, our company Blue Water Satellite uses satellite imagery and patented algorithms to detect cyanobacteria at ppb levels around the world. Because of the wide area of coverage at Atitlan (approximately 30,000 acres) and our ability to measure 5 samples per acre for Lake Atitlan, about 160,000 sample points per satellite scan would be needed. With these scans, we can develop a very accurate picture of cyanobacteria in Lake Atitlan.

“We can also measure Phosphorus on land as well as in water to help evaluate treatment strategies for proper farming to control and stop harmful toxic agricultural run off into the lake. We are ready to go to work at Lake Atitlan and waiting for someone there to make contact with us.”

Concerning the importance of getting accurate data on deadly cyanobacteria levels, Blue Water explains it on their web site at

“Today many large water bodies are sampled with very few data points. This leads to erroneous conclusions about the state health of the water body. We can detect cyanobacteria with high resolution at parts per billion (ppb) levels at a cost that is less than most ground sampling programs. We provide 5 samples per acre (5,000 samples for a 1,000 acre water body) at a cost that is typically less than the cost of 6-10 grab samples, providing statistically significant data. Our RMS error for Cyanobacteria measurement is plus or minus 2 parts per billion.
Regarding Eco Tek, Patrick Meyer, chief operating officer, said his company builds non-friendly water treatment facilities at a fraction of the cost of $350 million for 15 plants quoted by the Guatemalen government.

“In short, yes. This is something we can help with. 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.

“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.”

Editor’s note: Once known as the most beautiful lake in the world, now Lake Atitlan, a 1000′ deep volcanic lake 130 square km in size, has been taken over by a massive bloom of cyanobacteria that is now entering its toxic phase ending the basic source of water for the thousands of lake shore inhabitants as well as halting the livelihood of indigenous fisherman.

In October 2009, 85 per cent of the lake’s surface was covered with a green algae scum, cutting tourism by 75 per cent, according to local reports.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Guatemala’s Fireflies, Revue Magazine

Article in May 1, 2010 Revue magazine, but pre-dated to March 23 in order to group articles on Lake Atitlan and cyanobacteria.

Revue Magazine, May 1, 2010

Oliver Thornwhistle On—Luciérnagas

Posted: 30 Apr 2010 11:14 PM PDT

Here come Guatemala’s Fireflies: It must be May, or is it?

written by S.C. Johnson

All seafarers know the importance of light, as in lighthouse or beacon. Before GPS, charts showed lights sequences, say one short and two long flashes of lights followed by darkness, and if the navigator spotted the right sequence, he knew where he was. Lighthouses were built to repel, ward humans from danger.

But what if the opposite were true and sequences of light, say one short, two long, were meant to attract, not repel? Enter the luciérnaga, Guatemala’s firefly or lightning bug. Fireflies are omnipresent in literature dealing with summer in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s hard to imagine a fictional summer without hot nights and fireflies. And is there one of us who did not as a child collect a jar full of fireflies in the evening and go to sleep by its ever-dimming glow? (“Hey, Mom, he’s asleep, let the fireflies out.”) Likewise, Guatemala’s fireflies mean that the rainy season, or winter, invierno is approaching. Fireflies have always meant “May.”

No more. Guatemala’s luciérnagas are coming out earlier and earlier in the year, along with the spectacular purple flowers of the jacaranda, once thought of as the Easter tree, but now blooming as early as February. Climate change, global warming, whatever.

The flashes of light from fireflies have a purpose. Finding the right boyfriend or girlfriend for a firefly is a complicated task. There are several species, each with a distinctive flash pattern. Boy must meet girl and girl meet boy with identical light patterns. If you are a one long, two short and she is a two long, take a wave-off, it’s not going to happen.

Fireflies have fascinated man since the beginning, evidently scaring the scientist who first dubbed the phosphorescent substance that emits light luciferin, after a nickname for the devil. (Poor Devil, always getting the short end of the stick—in many countries a “Lucifer” is a match.)

Fireflies are actually beetles, living underground as grubs before emerging to flit and flash about and are sometimes called glowworms as they emerge. Their chief protective mechanism seems to be their bitter taste, as any puppy can attest. Curiously, they are generally not known to eat as adults, apparently having stored up enough food as underground larvae.

Naturally the Mayan Popul Vuh depicts fireflies, usually as stars but in one curious case as the glowing ashes on cigars. That was before anti-smoking regulations.


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Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
View of Lake Atitlan and volcano from my apartment balcony in Panajachel. Taken by Catherine Todd June 2008.