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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lake Cocibolca

One of the great natural sites of Nicaragua is Lake Cocibolca, also called Lake Nicaragua. Formed a half-million years ago by a depression in the recently-connected Mesoamerican isthmus, this lake is a fundamental component of the economy and culture of the Nicaraguan people. 
Whistling Tree-Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) take their clutch of hatchlings for a swim in Lake Cocibolca.
Cocibolca is among the largest freshwater lakes in the world. There are many important wetlands around the lake and its tributaries. Fish and birds inhabiting Lake Cocibolca and its surrounds are abundant and diverse. The lake was vital to the precolombian people of the zone, with numerous population centers all along its shores.
The name Cocibolca comes from the Nahuatl language, but cultural hegemony of the Spanish-speaking settlers led to such severe disregard for the culture and language of the locals that we no longer know what the name means, precisely. One theory is that it means the larger of the twin lakes, the lesser being Xolotlán 
Olivaceous cormorants (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) move around throughout Lake Cocibolca and inhabit special places such as Isla Zapote in the Solentinmane Archipielago. 
Lake Cocibolca is facing huge threats to its health. Nicaragua is notorious for poor management of its aquatic natural resources. Many natural water sources in Nicaragua have already been declared contaminated. Lake Xolotlán, for example, has an extremely high level of contamination from municipal wastewater discharged, untreated, directly into the lake for a century. It also has tons of mercury from a poorly operated chemical facility. 
Lake Cocibolca is expansive, giving the impression of an ocean from many perspectives. The locals have given it the name, "La Mar Dulce", or the freshwater sea. 
Several municipal wastewater discharges into Lake Cocibolca are now getting some level of treatment and control. The quantities of contaminants from the general population are dropping, but still at levels that warrant concern. Among the officially listed potential uses of the lake resources is potable water, although no major community gets its water here, yet.
Storm clouds accumulate over Lake Cocibolca. 
More destructive is the vast erosion throughout the watershed of the lake, consisting principally of cattle farms. Soil conservation practices such as ample levels of shade on pasture, gallery forest throughout river edges, and terracing or forest cover on steep slopes, are basically absent in all the farms. Use of pesticides such as ivermectin, for parasite control on cows, and defoliants is universal, and the tools for application are almost always washed directly into the rivers feeding the lake. Almost all pastures are burned at the end of the dry season, promoting a huge pulse of soils and nutrients into the lake at the first rains. Furthermore, agriculture such as rice is grown around the lake, and aerial fumigation dumps thousands of pounds of destructive pesticides each year.
An important aspect of Lake Cocibolca is the hundreds of small islands found throughout it. 
The vastness of the lake means that all these factors have not yet added up to destroy the lake, but like wolves at the door. As in much of the rest of the world, Nicaragua is facing water issues as the most important single conflictive issue of the 21st century. Many practices in the past and present are no longer viable, given ever-greater demands on water and threats that no one ever anticipated.
The sense that Lake Nicaragua is pristine and a natural paradise still exists. All visitors to the country should take advantage of opportunities to experience Cocibolca. Its shores, islands, fish and the nature are remarkable. The cities such as Granada, San Jorge, San Carlos and San Miguelito all give great views of the lake, and many islands are worth a visit, from Zapatera to Ometepe and the Solentiname Archipielago.

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