2017 Progress Report: Integrating Water and Energy Engineering with Ecotourism in a Costa Rican Aboriginal Community

EPA Grant Number: SU835941
Title: Integrating Water and Energy Engineering with Ecotourism in a Costa Rican Aboriginal Community
Investigators: Reinhold, Dawn
Current Investigators: Reinhold, Dawn , Liao, Wei , Hidalgo., David Arias , Aguilar, Ronald , Bustamante, Mauricio
Institution: Michigan State University
EPA Project Officer: Page, Angela
Phase: II
Project Period: September 1, 2015 through August 31, 2017 (Extended to August 31, 2018)
Project Period Covered by this Report: September 1, 2016 through August 31,2017
Project Amount: $74,980
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet - Phase 2 (2015) Recipients Lists
Research Category: Sustainable and Healthy Communities , P3 Awards , Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Challenge Area - Safe and Sustainable Water Resources


This project aims to implement an integrated water-wastewater-energy system for an ecotourism project led by the Shuabb Aborigine Women Association in Shuabb, Limon, one of the poorest regions of Costa Rica. Integrating environmentally friendly technologies, such as filters, anaerobic digestion and constructed treatment wetlands, the project specifically aims to (1) demonstrate the efficacy and practicality of the designed systems through installation and monitoring, (2) increase the lifespan of the ecotourism site through design of site hydrology, (3) promote ecotourism in the Shuabb community while educating potential ecotourists about small-scale water treatment, solar-assisted biodigesters, and treatment wetlands, and (4) train U.S. engineers to work within and with different cultures. In cooperation with the Gender Equity Office from the Technological Institute of Costa Rica, this engineered ecosystem can demonstrate the economic value of such development in a region with limited access to public services. This kind of holistic design will protect the local environment and culture, the greater country of Costa Rica, and ultimately the planet.

Progress Summary:

Accomplishments during the reporting period. A new team, consisting of approximately 20 undergraduates and two graduate students, was formed in August of 2015. Throughout September through December 2015, students optimized the proposed design, sourced materials, and figured out transportation logistics. A team of four undergraduate students were selected to travel in January 2016 on grant funding based on their contributions to the project; an additional three students choose to participate in the trip self-funded. A total of eight MSU students, two Costa Rican faculty, five Costa Rican students, and the PI traveled for the January implementation trip. One anaerobic digestion tank, the solar panel and heat transfer system, the gas collection and storage system, and a water storage tank were installed. Additionally, the hole for the wetland was dug, the drainage systems placed, and covered with gravel from a nearby riverbed. In between January and May, community members filled the wetland with sand and finished digging the hole for the second digester tank. Three students then traveled in May 2017 to finish the installation. After connecting the second digester tank, the team planted the wetland, fixed some leaks in the first digester tank, and installed gas distribution with lamps. Additionally, the team installed the potable water filter and showed community members how to take and analyze samples for the systems using Lamotte sample kits.

In addition to the activities associated with the implementation trips, students successfully completed two major aims from the United States. Jacob Cochrane designed a drainage plan for the site and Lindsey Kimmerling created webpages describing the system and the eco-resort. These pages are ready to be uploaded to the community's website once the system is fully operational.

Problems encountered. We have already overcome the first problem the project encountered. Prior to our first implementation trip, the community's tractor, which we planned to use to haul things between the access road and the site, had mechanical problems. Consequently, materials had to be walked into the site and excavated soil had to be manually carried out. Because of failure of a small bridge on the community's dirt road, we also were unable to bring in any digging equipment, so we had to manually excavate the area for the digesters and wetland. However, through a lot of hard work and extra hands, we were able to finish excavation of the first digester hole and wetland on the first trip. The community then volunteered their time to finish excavation prior to the second trip. Additionally, the community completed filling the wetland with gravel and sand for the nearby river.

Installation at the school was delayed, due to a change in the school's teacher. The new teacher, being unfamiliar with the project, was reluctant to start installation without person-to-person meetings, which were completed during the January and May 2017 trips.

Subsequent to the May 2017 installation trip, the community has reported that the digester bag yet to fill with gas. Additionally, some algae grew in the water filter and the community poured boiling hot water through the system to attempt to clean the system, melting parts of the filter. A site visit by David Arias, Mauricio Bustamante, and Ronald Aguilar (team members located in Costa Rica) troubleshot the problems: identifying a leak in one digester tank and confirming that the filter was not repairable. With permission for the program manager, we hope to travel in March with a small team to finish repairs on the digester leak, replace the water filter, and supervise installation of the water filter at the school (using existing funds in the grant due in part to the number of students who self-funded their travel).

Results. As the system is not yet operational, the results to date are largely observational. Ten U.S. students gain international design and implementation experience, helping prepare them for globally-engaged careers. Additionally, an Excel-based model was created to help similar communities design anaerobic digestion and wetland systems. The model allows for input of site characteristics (e.g., precipitation, average temperature, number of visitors) and outputs an approximate digester and wetland size for waste treatment, with an estimation of gas production. We expect significant findings once the system is operational. Additionally, news of the project and visits of other Bribri to the site have educated others about the potential for this technology to address their water, wastewater, and energy needs sustainably; we have already be contacted by a ecotourism facility in Amubri, Talamanca, Costa Rica, with a request to design a system.

Conclusions: While we have encountered one major obstacle and experienced one minor design problem, we are confident that we can still achieve the project goals within budget. We have gained the trust of the new teacher at the school, which allows us to still implement a water/wastewater/energy system for the school - just one year later than we initially planned. We are confident that we can fix the leak within the system. Fortunately, because cost-effective travel decisions in the first year and students' personal contributions saved enough money within the travel budget that we can afford at least one more trip to Costa Rica to solve these problems, we fully expect to achieve the proposed goals of the project and implement two sustainable water/wastewater/energy systems for the Bribri community in Shuabb, Costa Rica.

Journal Articles:

No journal articles submitted with this report: View all 2 publications for this project

Progress and Final Reports:

Original Abstract
  • 2016 Progress Report
  • Final Report

  • P3 Phase I:

    Integrating Water and Energy Engineering with Ecotourism in a Costa Rican Aboriginal Community  | Final Report