Bijagual River Watershed, Costa Rica: Improving Watershed Health and Engaging Local Communities in Monitoring and Outreach

Client Organization: 
Bijagual Center for Environmental Education and Conservation
Project Location : 
La Virgen de Sarapiquí, Costa Rica
Summary of Project Idea: 

The 45 km2 Bijagual River watershed in northern Costa Rica contains a diverse mosaic of land uses and provides important ecosystem services.  Located in the middle of the watershed is the Bijagual Ecological Reserve, a 286-hectare biological field station.  The Reserve is run by a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization and is dedicated to conservation, research, and education at all academic levels. Annual rainfall averages 5500 mm providing a complex of streams that feed the Bijagual and Tirimbina Rivers. The Reserve is collaborating in two recent awards from a Costa Rica-US Debt for Nature Swap Fund aimed at connecting forest patches along riverine corridors and working with landowners to increase the recognition and value of regenerating forest. The presence of the Bijagual Ecological Reserve and other private conservation areas within the watershed has created the following important opportunities:

  1. improving connectivity of forest patches through grant-funded reforestation projects,
  2. measuring the impact of reforestation efforts through water quality assessments conducted by local citizens, and
  3. creating environmental education resources that promote conservation activities to monitor and maintain the Bijagual River watershed.

The proposed SNRE Masters project provides an opportunity to define how best to work with the local community to make impactful changes to benefit the ecosystem health of the region.

Goals and Objectives

The goal of the project is to raise local awareness of the importance of the health of the Bijagual River watershed by involving the community in its monitoring and maintenance. The project at the Bijagual Ecological Reserve is proposing three components to achieve this goal:

1) the identification of priority areas for improving watershed health by:

  • conducting an assessment of land use in the Bijagual River watershed and producing a map representing the information gathered;
  • evaluating the current conservation efforts in the Bijagual River watershed by various NGO’s, community groups and programs; and
  • assessing conservation attitudes within the local community to help identify potential participants for reforestation and forest protection programs to improve forest connectivity within the watershed. 

2) the development of a stream monitoring program in order to:

  • provide a measure of the impacts of grant-funded reforestation programs;
  • establish baseline measurements for current watershed quality; and
  • involve local citizens and school groups in the process of long-term monitoring and maintenance of the Bijagual River watershed.

3) the development of a Bijagual River watershed outreach program for school groups and the establishment of a self-guided demonstration area/interpretive trail at the Bijagual Ecological Reserve for adults and children that:

  • increase public awareness of the importance of the watershed and its conservation;
  • disseminate information gained from the land use assessment and the stream monitoring program; and
  • provide the community and student groups both a self-guided resource and interactive activities within the Reserve with appropriate signs and supplemental materials highlighting watershed conservation.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance

This project will improve the integrity of the Bijagual River watershed through activities that include the direct involvement of the local community.  Citizens and students will learn about the importance of the watershed, methods to monitor water quality, and actions required to maintain ecosystem health. Furthermore, the project will provide information that will help us understand the human factors affecting the watershed—the land use and attitudes of the community toward the environment and conservation. In addition, the project will have positive effects on populations of several endangered species such as the Great Green Macaw, Baird's tapir, and jaguar that rely on the connectivity of forest patches within the watershed. Beyond the Bijagual River watershed, the assessment tools and stream monitoring protocols developed through this project will be shared with and distributed to regional, national and international communities, groups and organizations so that it can be replicated in other watersheds.

Specific Activities & Duration

Land-use analysis of the Bijagual River watershed

1) During Spring 2017 from campus:

  • Collect available GIS data from the past 25 years for the Bijagual River watershed including remote sensing data, agricultural use, participants of the Payment for Environmental Services program, protected areas, and physical features from various sources (Ministry of Agriculture, Fondo Nacional de Financimiento Forestal, Ministry of Environment and Energy, and the Municipality of Sarapiquí). The twenty-five year time period is being chosen to include data before the enactment of the 1996 forestry law limiting land-use conversion from forest to other agricultural uses.
  • Create preliminary land-use map that incorporates changes in land-use over the past 25 years.

2) During Summer 2017, field work from Bijagual Ecological Reserve:

  • Ground truth preliminary map for current land-use.
  • Collect any additional data required to produce final report and land-use map.

3) During Fall 2017/Winter 2018 from campus:

  • Incorporate data about historical changes in land-use collected from the community assessment of attitudes toward conservation.
  • Make final revisions to the land-use map.
  • Produce a final report that includes changes to land-use in the past 25 years, identification of priority areas for reforestation and conservations efforts, and an assessment of areas that are vulnerable to land-use degradation.

Assessment of current conservation efforts within the watershed

1) During Spring 2017 from campus:

  • In order to prioritize the areas where conservation efforts are required in the Bijagual River watershed, an analysis will be conducted that examines the stakeholders and organizations currently working to protect the watershed and to educate residents about its conservation. This activity will begin with a review of two Debt for Nature Swap Fund awards, becoming familiar with the conservation organization landscape in the area, and developing metrics for measuring success of conservation programs.
  • The success of the Costa Rica-US Debt for Nature Swap awards relies on identifying potential participants in the grant-funded reforestation programs to improve forest connectivity within the watershed. A survey that assesses local citizens’ views on the watershed and conservation will be developed.

2) During Summer 2017, field work from Bijagual Ecological Reserve:

  • Conduct survey of local citizens in the Bijagual River watershed.

3) During Fall 2017/Winter 2018 from campus:

Analysis of the surveys and final report on:

  • Current conservation and educational efforts in the Bijagual River watershed,
  • Metrics for measuring success of conservation efforts,
  • The attitudes of local citizens toward the watershed and conservation, and
  • Identification of potential participants in reforestation programs.

Designing a long-term water monitoring program

1) During Spring 2017 from campus:

  • Initial activities would include assessing a previous Adopt a Stream program developed 20 years ago and interviewing the coordinators of that project.
  • Develop stream monitoring program based on lessons learned from the Adopt a Stream program and integrating the technology and resources currently available.

2) During Summer 2017, field work from Bijagual Ecological Reserve:

  • Test the new methodology.
  • Collect baseline data of stream quality.
  • Develop a sustainability plan for continuation of stream monitoring by local citizens and student groups.

3) During Fall 2017/Winter 2018 from campus:

  • Final revisions of methodology.
  • Compilation and analysis of baseline data collected.

Watershed conservation outreach program

1) During Spring 2017 from campus:

  • Research watershed conservation issues.
  • Investigate methods and approaches in order to design and implement a successful watershed-related outreach program at the Bijagual Ecological Reserve geared toward local citizens ranging in age from school groups to adults.

2) During Summer 2017, field work from Bijagual Ecological Reserve:

  • Become familiar with the Bijagual River watershed and the Bijagual Ecological Reserve.
  • Develop an outreach program for school-age students about the ecology, conservation, monitoring and maintenance of the Bijagual River watershed.
  • Design a self-guided demonstration area/interpretive trail with signage and supplemental materials displaying the importance of the Bijagual River watershed, its ecology, conservation, monitoring and maintenance of its health.

3) During Fall 2017/Winter 2018 from campus:

  • Produce environmental education materials for the outreach program including a teaching manual and exercises designed for elementary school-age students.
  • Produce the displays and supplemental materials for the self-guided demonstration area/interpretive trail.

Integrative Approach

An effective final project will be able to incorporate the various skills and contributions each student will make to focused activities within a single, manageable-sized watershed. Each student's contribution feeds into and supports the other components of the project. For example, decisions regarding where to channel conservation activities in the Bijagual River watershed will be based upon the recommendations provided by the land-use assessment, the evaluation of current conservation activities within the watershed combined with outcomes of the survey to identify potential participants in reforestation programs. In order to measure the success of conservation activities and create a sustainable long-term monitoring program assessing the health of the watershed, the protocols developed for stream quality analysis will be employed by members of the community. Furthermore, data gathered from the stream monitoring will provide the information that will be shared through outreach programs that will inform children and adults about the ecology of the watershed, provide activities that allow them to maintain the overall health of the ecosystem and demonstrate the importance of their conservation efforts. The proposed project is an integrated approach for effectively involving the community in the long-term monitoring and protection of the Bijagual River watershed.

SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Justice
Sustainable Systems
Landscape Architecture
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Ivette Perfecto and Catherine Riseng
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Wenyang Mu
  • Audrey Pallmeyer
  • Walker Stinnette
  • Brad Weiss
Project Status: 
Past Project