SAN FRANCISCO, MEXICO — Tourists from many corners of the world gather here to watch one of the region’s most beautiful sunsets. In this town in the municipality of Bahía de Banderas, in the state of Nayarit, they take photographs and applaud as the very last trace of the sun disappears.
But when darkness envelops the beach and the visitors gradually depart, the festive atmosphere gives way to fetid odors that roll in from the south, where the motors of the treatment plant start. The wastewater discharge flows into the town’s estuary, which, during the rainy season, fills with enough water to connect with the sea.
Wastewater treatment in San Francisco is currently overseen by Organismo Operador Municipal de Agua Potable, Alcantarillado y Saneamiento, which is also referred to as OROMAPAS. The legal status of OROMAPAS gives it a certain amount of autonomy, and among other subsidies, it has received funding from the Inter-American Development Bank.
Over the past 25 years, OROMAPAS has gradually acquired control over the administration of drinking water and sewage throughout more and more territory in the municipality of Bahía de Banderas. However, residents in the north of the municipality say the results have been disastrous. Gray water flowing through the streets, drinking water shortages and contaminated bodies of water are just three issues they have experienced daily.
The pollution directly affects residents who enter the sea each day.
Jorge Alexis Castellón, a San Francisco local, is a commercial diver and avid surfer. He says he once had to sign a form authorizing the amputation of his foot after a bacterial infection from the ocean had developed into gangrene. The amputation turned out to be unnecessary.
“I was about to lose my foot. It seemed like it was going to happen, so I had to do it so the doctors could treat me,” says Castellón, who received a minor wound when he hit a rock while surfing in front of the estuary. The infection developed rapidly, and by the third day he could not walk.
The Bahía de Banderas region has been developed as one of the main international tourist centers for beaches in Mexico. The project took shape in the 1970s, under the federal government of then-President Luis Echeverría, which expropriated areas intended for tourism development from farming communities on the Pacific coast.
As part of the compensation for expropriating the coastal land, the Echeverría government implemented a process of urbanization and the provision of basic services to the affected populations. This included leaving the administration of drinking water, sewage and sanitation to local water management councils, which are autonomous entities made up of town residents.
However, since 1998, OROMAPAS, which is a paramunicipal agency according to the state of Nayarit’s drinking water and sewage law, has gradually taken over the management of water and sanitation services within the municipality.
Paramunicipal agencies are public, but they also utilize private budgets, even receiving international funding from entities like the Inter-American Development Bank.
Maya Piedra, GPJ Mexico
Awarding the management of drinking water and sanitation in Bahía de Banderas to the paramunicipal agency has not been a smooth process. One of the most recent handovers happened in the north of the municipality, in the town of Sayulita. Here, the appointment of OROMAPAS as the service administrator went through amid protests.
The protests were held because, in a town north of Sayulita called San Ignacio, a nauseating odor permeates the environment. The source is the gray water flowing through the streets on its way to El Guamúchil creek, which meets the sea at Sayulita’s shore during the rainy season.
San Ignacio was one of the first towns to relinquish administration of its water and sanitation services to OROMAPAS. “They’ve been in operation for 25 years now,” says J. Isabel López González, an auxiliary judge in San Ignacio. He adds that a treatment plant and drainage infrastructure were built for the town in 2009, but they have yet to operate due to a lack of interest in further investment in the plant.
“It’s affecting all of us. … The smell is stronger when the weather is hot,” says a resident who was born in San Ignacio, and who, like other residents, requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The pollution affects more than the air quality. Underground drinking water sources that the population relies on during droughts have also been impacted.
“There are wells near the creek, and you can’t bathe with the water from them because it smells very bad and makes you break out in a rash,” says the San Ignacio resident.
Maya Piedra, GPJ Mexico
It is not as if there are only artisanal wells near the creek, either; there is also a waterwheel for potable water, López says. “Many people started saying that, when they washed themselves, rashes started appearing and they felt itchy.”
A constant stream of reports has been sent to the authorities responsible for addressing deficiencies, residents say, but no solutions have arrived. “We’ve reported this to everyone, but no one is taking responsibility. No one wants to grab the bull by the horns,” López says. OROMAPAS approached the town with promises to fix the problem, but nothing has been resolved.
Global Press Journal received no response from OROMAPAS to its multiple requests for comment.
Downriver lies Sayulita. The town has been designated a “Magical Town,” and since then its streets having been graced by the footsteps of show-business personalities this past year. In 2021, OROMAPAS took over the functions of Sayulita’s drinking water, sewage and sanitation council.
“A lot of people from here didn’t want to [hand over the water]. However, as with any place where development starts happening, things change and the original residents become the odd ones out,” another Sayulita resident says.
The council was an autonomous entity that relied on payments from those who used its services for revenue. It therefore did not have the budget that a public institution has.
Sayulita residents say that under OROMAPAS, services immediately became less personal. Customers say they went from being people to just being numbers. They say technical problems took longer than usual to resolve, water pressure decreased, the supply of water to neighboring towns was permitted, and billing rates for the service grew exponentially.
Maya Piedra, GPJ Mexico
“When the old administration was there, it cost 900 [Mexican] pesos [50 United States dollars] per year. Today, with the current administration, the cost is 2,000 or 3,000 pesos [110 or 165 dollars] per month. That’s a staggering difference,” the same Sayulita resident says.
In response to the cost increases, residents have requested that the potable water supply networks be examined, but it has taken between two and three months for such reviews to occur. Plus, when action is taken to resolve issues, it often fails because the technicians are not sufficiently trained, residents say.
“They connected my meter to my neighbor’s house,” the resident says, adding that resolving the problem has trapped her in a bureaucratic quagmire that has cost her several months without success. Meanwhile, her bill continues to increase because of the interest the agency charges for nonpayment, except that her bills are based on readings from the wrong meter, she says. Regardless, OROMAPAS has warned her that, if she does not pay, they will cut off her service.
The provision of water to neighboring towns is new to Sayulita residents as well. “The service was 100% for the community. They were only allowed to make an exception when civil protection needed a water truck to handle an emergency,” another resident says. But now residents say they have seen water trucks leave pumping stations to deliver water to neighboring communities while the town is left without complete service.
“It’s gotten to the point where I’ve seen as many as four trucks a day leaving one of the pumping stations,” the resident says.
San Francisco lies 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) north of Sayulita. While it has suffered foul odors in the night from the discharge of residential wastewater, it is also where an exclusive hotel company recently purchased land for its next tourism development project. This is the only town in northern Bahía de Banderas that still has its own council, or Consejo de Agua Potable, Alcantarillado y Saneamiento. The sanitation services, however, are in the hands of OROMAPAS.
Claudio Vázquez Madrigal, director of San Francisco’s Consejo de Agua Potable, Alcantarillado y Saneamiento, says the town has two water treatment plants: one next to the estuary, built 50 years ago by the Echeverría government, and another 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) to the north, which began operations three years ago. However, after four months of use, it broke down. The two plants might be operating at 50% of their capacity, and the semi-treated water could be running directly into the estuary, Vázquez says.
Maya Piedra, GPJ Mexico
At the same time, the Consejo de Agua Potable, Alcantarillado y Saneamiento has been under pressure to relinquish administration of their services to OROMAPAS for some months now. The people oppose such a move. And resistance is not easy, Vázquez explains, because no coercive authority exists to compel people who do not pay their water bill to do so — and those funds represent all of the local water management agency’s funding. Customers must go to the offices in person to settle their bill — and some don’t.
There are people who register for one intake, but they might be renting out several living spaces on the same property, says Elvia García Palomera, a San Francisco resident.
The council’s service has its own challenges, García says, but it shares a closeness with the people, and the community can organize to find solutions.
When administration passes into the hands of third parties, the community loses the control it had over the service. San Francisco residents say the problems they are already facing with the treatment plants’ service quality, combined with the experiences of neighboring towns, paint a vivid picture of the circumstances that await them with a change in leadership.
Support should be given to the local water council to make people pay their bills, García says. That way, San Francisco could retain independent control of its water system.
“We need a support committee,” she says, “so the water council can take inventory.”
Correction: An earlier version of a caption in this article misidentified the tank that supplies drinking water to the town. Global Press Journal regrets this error.