To save Lake Atitlán, everyone needs to get involved
Lake Atitlán is an enormous body of water, almost 25 cubic kilometers in volume. Its surface area measures approximately 12 kilometers by 5 kilometers. With an average depth of roughly 220 meters, the lake is around 350 meters deep at its deepest point, making it the deepest lake in Central America.
Regenerating the lake before it becomes contaminated beyond the point of recovery is a massive undertaking. It will take a cohesive plan, massive mobilization, and transparent management of remediation projects.
It will take many, many grassroots efforts like ours. We have to start somewhere, and we have to start now! We can start small and scale up, but doing nothing is not an option. Restoring Lake Atitlán's ecosystem will only be possible if everybody who cares about the future of the lake and its people becomes a part of its restoration.
Most immediately, there is a critical need for short-term measures that mitigate the effects of constant pollution and help the lake survive. These efforts 'buy time' for the long-term (costly, complex) projects that will save Lake Atitlán by dealing with the nutrient and pathogen problems at source.
This is the quickest, simplest, and least expensive short-term strategy and it is ideal for Lake Atitlán. Phytoremediation uses plants and solar energy to decrease contamination in water and soils, sludges, sediments, surface water, and groundwater by filtering pathogens and removing excess nutrients.
There are three phytoremediation techniques that we can implement right now: tul reforestation, floating gardens, and floating rings. Our campaign to reforest Lake Atitlán is well underway. There are local farmers ready to tend floating gardens and floating rings - these initiatives will be locally sustainable once set up.
Bioremediation uses beneficial microorganisms, which are naturally present in healthy ecosystems, to combat harmful bacteria in damaged ecosystems. This approach offers proven, natural, and feasible solutions to Lake Atitlán’s problems.
Beneficial microorganisms can be used to treat wastewater and to remediate damaged soils and waterways. Bioremediation techniques have been used to restore environments all over the world that have been degraded by human activity or environmental disaster.
The Master Plan
The Master Plan (2015) for drinking water supply and waste water treatment in the Lake Atitlán basin involves building new treatment plants and a giant sewage pipeline connecting all the towns that will export sewage out of the basin (the famous 'popoférico').
The plan draws on successful restoration efforts in Italy (Lake Bolsena and Lake Garda), Germany (Lake Constance), and the U.S.A (Lake Tahoe and Lake Washington). If executed effectively it would save the lake.
However, the Master Plan is highly controversial. Environmentalists and indigenous groups do not believe the pipeline would be built with respect for the rights of indigenous communities, and they will continue to campaign against it. And implementation would entail all the challenges and complexities of large infrastructure projects in Guatemala.
So far only one new wastewater treatment plant has been built - we cannot rely on the Master Plan to save Lake Atitlán.
Read more about the Master Plan:
The group Amigos del Lago de Atitlán is a prominent advocate of the sewage pipeline as the only solution for rescuing the lake. Read a different view of the Master Plan on their website.
This is the 2014 scientific report on which the Master Plan is based, also on the Amigos del Lago website.