If you ask the World Bank or one of the mega-water corporations (e.g., Coke, Nestle, Vivendi), fresh drinking water is a commodity. If you ask virtually everyone else in the world (including the United Nations), fresh drinking water is a basic human right. Whether it is the encroachment of privatization or Nicaragua’s plan to divert the San Juan River, water in Costa Rica is an increasingly lively topic.
One of the most popular questions for potential property owners is, “What is the water situation for this property?” Most of these new investors come from North America and Europe, areas that have hundreds of years of infrastructure development. However, this southern Pacific region of Costa Rica is still early in the cycle of development. We continue to see rapid growth in communications (cell phones and high speed internet), power (high tension power lines), and roads (the newly paved Costanera between Quepos and Dominical). That being said, cell phones are a luxury, but water… is a necessity.
Property In A Development
Most quality developments have a water system that has been installed by the developer. The most common sources for these systems are high flowing springs, and in some cases surface water (e.g., creeks and rivers). Some developments, like Osa Estates in Uvita, even have back-up systems and extensive water storage capabilities. The interesting thing is very few developments actually have a concession (permission to extract water from the ground). The good news is the majority of them are “in process”. Either way, the developer usually provides the property owner a prevista (water right document) which guarantees use of water into the future (assuming the property owner is in compliance with established CC&Rs and other laws). Proof of a water document, like a prevista, is also required by the local Municipality before they will approve any construction project on a property.
Here’s where it gets tricky. There are many water cooperatives that have tapped into old water systems (tanks and pipes running down the main roads) and created branches to their property. One such cooperative water system in Uvita supplies over 100 parcels, yet it does not have a concession nor can they provide a legal document for many of the property owners who are trying to build on their property and/or sell it.
In some cases, you can connect into an AyA system or a private system. Tap fees are running between $400-$1,200 for a ½” pipe depending on the area. With normal usage your water bill will be around $50.00/year.
If you already have water running to a pre-existing house, the good news is cutting off someone’s water ranks a close second to homicide in eyes of the Costa Rican government. Ben and I have closed many deals wherein we have simply taken a photo of us standing on the property with the water flowing out. However, those days are coming to an end… many potential buyers, lawyers, and the municipality, now want to see some kind of documented proof.
Developing A Spring
A spring is called a naciente in Spanish which translates as “birth”. The birth of a water source is a precious thing indeed (see Water In Costa Rica, Part One). If you are fortunate enough to have a spring or two on your finca (farm), there are different ways to tap into or develop a spring. The most common way is, as follows—
- Create a cement catchment box at the source
- Run tubes out from the box
- Connect and secure the tubes to storage tank(s)
- In some cases, you will need to pump the water up to a tank and run a water line down from there.
If you are not able to locate an obvious spring on your property, these companies can also help with the a-to-z process of drilling a well.
Drilling A Well
There are a few drilling companies active in the area; and for this article, I am drawing on the expertise of Jerry Werth, owner of Pura Vida Drilling. His company has drilled over 1,000 wells in Costa Rica. The standard well setback is 40 meters (that’s a 40 meter no-build radius from the well). This distance can be reduced to 10 meters when a successful percolation test is completed. Here is a summary of the well drilling process for a mountain property —
- Your well permit is submitted to both Department of Water and SENARA (Servicio Nacional de Aguas Subterráneas, Riego y Avenamiento) located in San Jose.
- A hydro-geological study is performed to determine potential “targets” for the well and impact on surrounding water systems.
- With the permit approved, the well is physically drilled.
- An 8-hour pumping test is completed.
- File an application for a Concession Permit, which legally allows you to extract groundwater into perpetuity. This approval can take up to one year or more.
- The well is completed, including— pumps, treatment and delivery systems depending on your project needs.
Jerry also mentioned that, in the near future, the well permit and the concession permit will be processed at the same time. The initial well permit, hydrological study and filtration study is $1,750. The cost to drill a well is $150/meter and well depths in the mountain areas range between 80-200 meters. Although the $15,000 price tag (for 80 mtrs.) appears steep at first glance, properties with a strong flowing well offer added value that is difficult to quantify.
Why Go Big?
Most of those looking to invest in real estate in Costa Rica are looking to buy a house or an ocean view lot. However, Ben and I continue to see a trend toward buyers looking for larger parcels that can accommodate retreats and hotels, a working farm, or simply enable its subdivision into smaller parcels. Tourism continues to increase in the area, and the vacation rental market looks to offer a strong ROI (return on investment), as well. Whatever your strategy, securing water is key to providing stability for your investment and quality of life into the future.
My first visit to Costa Rica was in 2002. I immediately fell in love with the warmth of the climate and people. After spending two weeks in San Jose, Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side, and Tamarindo in Guanacaste, I knew there was a good chance I would return sooner than later. Sooner came just 6 months later when my uncle mentioned he was flying down to Costa Rica to close on a piece of property in the Southern Pacific Zone. On that trip I found my own piece of paradise above the small town of San Buenaventura, home to the San Buenas Golf Resort. Two years and 8 trips later, I decided to move to Costa Rica full time. Every day I am thankful for that decision.