Working Paradise: In Costa Rica, Opportunities Abound
By Karen R. Smith & Denise M. Roberts
The Province of Guanacaste, on the north Pacific coast of Costa Rica, is known for beautiful beaches, superb snorkeling, a shoreline that is home to a diverse population of birds and a lake-filled mountain region ideal for windsurfing. Water, water and more water—until the annual six-month dry season arrives.
Experiencing that first dry season back in 2001, seeing how it compromised both the availability and quality of drinking water, vacationer Jim Ryan recognized a new opportunity.
A graduate of Stanford University, he had entered the water industry with his very first job at American Digital Systems, better known as ADS. Ryan rose to become President of the company’s Long Term Water Monitoring Division. The firm designed, built and operated remote sensor and microcomputer networks that gave governments and utilities real time data on hydrological and environmental factors for the very first time.
Years later he entered Europe’s newly emerging competitive utility markets. Ryan established one of the first private utility supply and consultancy companies in London in 1992 and worked on projects throughout the EU. After selling the company in 2001, he welcomed a vacation under the sunny skies of Costa Rica and Nicaragua to recharge and determine his next direction.
The vacation passed, yet Ryan remained, enchanted by the region’s natural beauty, especially the waterways. As a sailor, windsurfer and diver, he felt there could be no better place for him to settle.
“There’s a very unique atmosphere here, a combination of incredible biodiversity and volcanic geology, that creates a beauty unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Besides, where else but on this narrow isthmus can you wake up in the morning and decide whether you want to visit a beach on the Atlantic or the Pacific coast or stay in the middle and go white-water river rafting?” Ryan asked.
Having lived and worked in the US and the UK, as well as in Italy and Hungary—and completed projects in most of the other countries of the world as a temporary resident—it is obvious he found a personal resonance in the Costa Rican landscape. All the more reason, he notes, for wanting to help the inhabitants exist sustainably.
The need for sustainable water practices was obvious to Ryan from his very first Costa Rican dry season. “Coincident with the end of our annual rains, colder temperatures in the northern latitudes and seasonal holidays bring visitors in droves to Central America’s beaches and mountains. The combination of peak agricultural irrigation and peak tourism with a booming construction sector, accompanied by diminishing water resources, create a series of annual water shortages and contamination events. Ironically, the natural environment that attracts so many visitors is, in turn, threatened by their very presence.”
Nowhere are these problems more pronounced than the popular but fragile coastal environments where most of Agua Solutions’ clients are located. Hotels, resorts, private homeowners and large developers that seek out Agua Solutions’ services recognize that responsible (i.e., sustainable) development makes good sense and is a good investment. Gradually, the firm’s Rain Water Harvesting (RWH) design and build services expanded into a full range of water related services, including water quality testing, storage, grey water recovery and re-use, water conservation, solar-/wind- powered pumping systems, storm water management, evaporation inhibitors for pools and lakes and, finally, water purification. However, the company’s primary focus is sustainable rainwater (for potable and non-potable use) and its purification. Said Ryan, “The 120 inches or so of intense tropical rain we receive each year must be managed carefully to avoid flooding and property destruction and to sustain us through the long dry season.”
Shortly after Ryan formed Agua Solutions International, he invited his sister Terry to join the firm. Her education in the sciences (undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry, a Master’s of Science in ecology and a Doctorate of veterinary medicine) combined with her broad experience in conservation projects throughout Africa, Mexico and Central America (including disaster medicine) made her a valuable addition to the firm. Her public health experiences led to her special focus upon humanitarian projects providing safe drinking water to rural schools and clinics. A percentage of the company’s revenues fund these projects. Terry is also an instrument-rated pilot (with US and Costa Rica licenses), which means the company can accept projects well off the beaten path.
Ryan’s passion for combining the best of cutting-edge technology with environmental stewardship has led him to introduce the GE Homespring™ as the premier central water purification system for his upscale clients. He considers it the ideal ultrafiltration purification system since it doesn’t depend upon chemicals or even electricity to assure pure, safe drinking water from a wide range of sources (rain, well, surface or municipal waters). “We’re combining the best of GE’s ultrafiltration membrane technology with the ancient practice of rain water harvesting,” Ryan remarked.
Given that many of the firm’s customers desired renewable energy alternatives after their water needs were satisfied, Ryan added the energy company ASI Power & Telemetry to his offerings. He explained, “Many of our clients have a real pioneer spirit and don’t want to be confined to well-established or more ‘civilized’ locations”.
In many cases, clients build in remote scenic locations at or past the boundary of traditional water and energy utility services, so the combination of alternative water and power-supply strategies are the essential ingredients that allow such projects to succeed.
Jim and Terry are rightfully proud of the unique team of individuals they’ve attracted with the skills to make sustainability a reality for their customers and the commitment to contribute to their community. Today, the company is part of the design team for the first three projects in Central America to seek the LEED certification from the US Green Building Council. Agua Solutions’ and ASI Power’s variety of conservation and alternative technologies for water and energy allow them to contribute significantly to these world-class, sustainable projects.
Today, Ryan lives in Liberia, Costa Rica where Agua Solutions International’s Central American offices are based; the company also works in neighboring Nicaragua and Honduras and plans to expand to Panama. Direct flights from London to Liberia International Airport have just begun, so when he misses bangers and mash, Ryan can easily head to the UK to enjoy them and catch up with friends—and happily head back home to his personal paradise.