Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

Roatan’s Water Whisperers

A pond on the Mango Creek in Port Royal.

The Water That Everyone Forgets Gets Badly Needed Attention

Water brings life and water brings beauty into our life. On an island surrounded by coral reefs, fresh water is an underappreciated common resource. It is a resource that belongs to all islanders, but it is often perceived as it belongs to no one. 
In order to assure this resource remains plentiful and clean Roatan needs more dams, it need more water reservoirs, more fresh water lagoons and more managed estuaries. 
While no interest is shown from central or local governments in managing this resource half a dozen individuals stepped up to manage surface water on their properties. While their approach is different, their goal is the same: conserve the rainwater that hits the island’s surface and redirect it from the sea and into the island’s aquifers. 
There are few man made water lagoons around Roatan. There are also numerous ponds and many properties live off rain water as a matter of necessity or choice. Several pioneers are blazing a trail and setting an example how others should manage island’s common, but fleeing resource. 

A bridge over the Gumbalimba lagoon in West Bay.

Gumbalimba Lagoon

The Gumbalimba lagoon of West Bay came into existence in 1997. The lagoon is 24 feet at its deepest point with two gulleys that feed it. They fill it to an impressive three million gallons volume. The idea behind building the lagoon in 1990s was simple: “if we could keep water back we can recharge the aquifer,” says Julio Galindo, Roatan business man who built the structure.

For over a decade now the lagoon has not only injected millions of gallons of water into Roatan’s aquifer it has done much more. Being part of the Gumbalimba park the lagoon is also an animal’s heaven and a tourist attraction.

Times are changing in West Bay, water is becoming scarcer and the Gumbalimba lagoon is a testament to just that. In twentieth century water on the island was plentiful and forests were thick. In a current construction boom, steep building lots are being cleared to make room for houses at an alarming rate. Wells are being drilled on a weekly basis. The island’s aquifer is well below the earth surface, but the signs of its growing depletion can be seen clearly.

At the height of the 2021 dry season the lagoon was at its lowest point in 23 years. It was half full. “That is what scares me. More and more people selling water and drilling water,” says Galindo. “Fresh water could be finished one day. We need to decide how many wells per square mile the island could handle.”

Galindo suggests that there should be an oversight in managing the islands water. “Not everyone can build a lagoon,” says Galindo. “Municipality should pass laws requiring that if you build you have to also build a reservoir.” Bay Islands department has no water board authority and fresh water remains managed by individuals as they see fit.

Vern Albert and his estuary project in Flower’s Bay.

Vern, the Estuary Pundit

A few miles away in Flowers Bay a different type of water management effort is taking place. An estuary that was once a garbage dump has been cleaned up and returned to its water filtration role in the island’s ecosystem.
Not many people look at a site full of garbage and debris as an opportunity. Vern Albert is one of these few people. He is one of the few people on Roatan that creatively solves water issues. Black water, gray water and estuary water are his element.

Vern is also a freethinker, an activist, a visionary and a bit of an eccentric. When he came to the island he constructed all the drainage of West Bay’s Grand Roatan. Back in the US Albert was a landscape contractor and he says that following the strict building codes there, helped him educate himself about creating proper water treatment systems.

Today his main focus is a small estuary site right of the main road in Flowers Bay that until a few years ago, was a local garbage dumping site. “There was zero life here when I started,” says Albert. “There was 100 meters of garbage here. The mangrove had refrigerators, carcasses, car seats, hundreds of bags of garbage.”

Not many people look at a site full of garbage and debris as an opportunity.

The estuary is in a way, a lower intestine, for the creek that descends from the Flowers Bay hills. Every 20 seconds, or so the water flow goes up and then comes down. Small organic particles float on the surface of the water, up and down with the water. “We are generating free energy that powers this rock filter,” says Albert.

A properly functioning estuary slows down the pollutants before they get to the reef and at least in Flowers Bay nature has its filters operational. “It’s working, it’s using the tidal flux to clean,” says Patty McCulla, Albert’s girlfriend who has been watching the project from its inception.

Ten feet of open rock at the end of the estuary in Flowers Bay serves as a natural filter for plants and animals. It was created with creative ideas and a lot of hard work. “It’s about cooling the water and letting the microbes interact through motion,” said Albert. “Motion creates more microbial life and more oxygen.”

Albert believes that nature systems can be enhanced. Albert believes his solution could and should be replicated in every estuary around Roatan. “Everywhere on this island you can create an estuary, if you so desire,” said Albert. “Roatan is already one giant water filtration system.”

Not many people look at a site full of garbage and debris as an opportunity.

The ability to see potential and beauty where others see pollution and ugliness is a unique thing. “He likes to find out where there used to be beautiful, clean, healthy full of life estuaries before the pollution happened,” says Patty. “He is a land whisperer. He can look at land and know where natural things are.”

Albert’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, and some islanders became inspired by his work. “I never seen more a guy more passionate about estuaries and keeping the aquifers filled and keeping water on the island and not letting it just run out,” said Jonathan Solomon, an islander who is also building a water conservation project on his land in Gravels Bay.

While there is easily over a hundred registered non profits working throughout the island, Albert is his own guide. “I’m not a nonprofit. I tried to be nonprofit, but the process was too complicated,” says Albert who feels there is a jealousy between the island NGOs. “You can get into trouble by doing the right thing.”

Albert’s efforts are also beginning to be noticed and received some recognition abroad. The UK based Latin American Travel Association (LATA) foundation has recognized his project with an award. “By removing sludge, digging out and building underwater rock walls on the side of an estuary, the project has created macro-biological ponds to filter and treat toxic water,” wrote about the Flowers Bay estuary project LATA foundation.

According to Albert saltwater intrusion has already begun in aquifers across Roatan and will continue to increase salt levels in wells around Roatan. In the US, the authority responsible for overall water strategy and water drilling permits is the water board. Roatan has no such institution and managing the precious resource is left to individual property owners.

“The [polluted] estuaries are what is killing the reef due to sedimentation and nutrient loading sewage,” said Albert. “The estuary is the most overlooked component of saving the reef.” Indeed, while most NGOs focus on reefs and clean beaches and mangroves Roatan’s dozens of estuaries have been the most overlooked part of the island’s ecosystem.

The [polluted] estuaries are what is killing the reef.

There is also a medical benefit to the estuary clean up. Along with a clean estuary, dengue and malaria transmitting mosquitoes were eliminated. Crustaceans and juvenile reef fish made their way back into the cleaned-up Flowers Bay estuary habitat. “They are filling in wetlands here all over the place. Me, I am trying to create wetlands,” says Albert. In fact he wants to have native water species, those that need brackish and fresh water to live, to densely populate the estuary.

One such species is the giant river prawn that used to naturally migrate up the Roatan creeks, and still does in some cleaner island creeks. “Roatan is losing these aquatic freshwater species quickly,” says Albert who questions the entire strategy of building concrete rain runoff systems on the island. That stance makes him a dissident and a rebel. “You never want to run fresh water in to the ocean, you want to run fresh water into the island,” says Albert. The sea doesn’t need fresh water, the island does.”

Albert also began construction of a retention pond three hundred meters away from the estuary. Albert has a vision of a place that will clean water, retain water and educate locals how to conserve water on an island with a constantly depleted aquifer. “I am fighting a losing battle, but I am not going to quit fighting,” said Albert.

Jackson Road Lagoon

Some lagoons happen as accidents or results of other actions. The Jackson Road lagoon is one such happenstance.
The roughly 200 foot wide lagoon was created when the then Mayor Dale Jackson built a road across the island in 2006. During construction the runoff water was trapped between the road and the steep hillside. Since then the lagoon with no human management has remained full of water, even in the driest years.

The Port Royal Pond

Mango Creek Lodge in Port Royal manages a smaller pond that replenishes the aquifer on the east side of Roatan. This Port Royal creak runs all year. It has been supplying Paya settlements thousand years ago and pirates replenishing their fresh water supplies 350 years ago. Possibly Henry Morgan himself filled his water bottle at the Mango creek in Port Royal.

This pond was constructed on the Mango Creek in 2003 by enlarging the size of the creek and blocking its south side with a concrete wall. “Our efforts to stabilize the useful water volumes for Mango Creek also help recharge our aquifer,” said Autie McVicker, owner of Mango Creek Lodge. “We have sufficient water year round. [Water holding] cisterns are employed at various locations, so we do not draw down the artesian formations.”

Possibly Henry Morgan himself filled his water bottle at the Mango creek.

The pond is around 30 feet wide, 120 feet long and just under three feet deep. It retains an equivalent of approximately 50,000 gallons of water. The cost of constructing a retaining wall on the creek was insignificant to the many uses the pond water provides. The water from the pond is also used to water the lodge’s gardens in the dry season.

As wells around the island are becoming dry and new wells need to be drilled deeper, the island inevitably finds itself heading for a water shortage. Yet solution to freshwater management doesn’t have to come from government entities. Heavy-handed, expensive and sometimes corrupt government ordinances are not necessary if enough people fallow examples of the water management pioneers.
As Roatan grows in population, the island needs more responsible, resourceful individuals to manage its fresh water. It is these resourceful and intrepid individuals are making a difference and providing creative solutions to the island’s water shortage.

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