Off the Beaten Path: The Invasion of the Water Nymphs

At the end of November, a video popped up in my Twitter feed.  It is from a Channel 4 news report in El Salvador.  I had to watch the video twice.  The images are startling!  For two weeks in November, not a single fishing boat nor tourism boat had been able to go out on Lake Suchitlán due to an invasion of ninfa, or water nymphs.  Watch the video, then read a little bit more of the story...
Invasion of the Water Nymphs

Now that the words "invasive species" have a whole new creep factor for you, we can dig into this story a little more deeply.

Let's begin with a map.  The head waters of the Río Lempa (Lempa River) are located in Guatemala, where the river is called Río Olopa.  The water flows through Honduras and then into El Salvador, where it meanders west before turning south and flowing into the Pacific ocean.  The blue area on the map shows the watershed for the Río Lempa, which includes mountainous regions, agricultural zones and urban areas.  Lae Suchitlán is the meandering reservoir which was created in 1974. by damming the Río Lempa.  It consists of about 33,360 acres of surface waters and is one of 4 sites which produce hydroelectric power.

The river has suffered a long history of contamination as garbage, human and animal waste, fertilizer, pesticide, industrial waste and topsoil wash into the water.  A 1998 Water Resources Assessment of El Salvador by the US Army Corps of Engineers identified the Río Acelhuate (which receives run-off from the greater San Salvador area and carries it into the Río Lempa) as a "biohazard, [warning] all contact with the river water should be avoided."  The people know the water is dangerous, yet out of necessity they fish and wash their clothes in the water.  In fact, along the northern highway which crosses the Lempa and the Acelhuate (which Salvadorans call the dirty river), fishers wave stringers of their daily catch at passing cars, hoping to make a sale.

Lake Suchitlán is a great place to spend a little time while in El Salvador.  Despite the warnings not to swim in the water, eating lunch at a restaurant at the Tourist Center at Puerto San Juan Suchitoto or going for a boat tour is a great way to spend a little free time.  During the dry season, Lake Suchitlán is a stopping point for hundreds of species of migratory birds.  During my last visit in February of this year, I took a few photos which illustrate the beauty of this place.

Lake Suchitlán along the drive down to the shore from Suchitoto

View from one tourist boat to another

The water was clear

When we stopped at the island, the boat driver pointed out the "lettuce"
growing in the water.  That's what locals call the jacinta or water nymph plants.

So, back to Twitter.  I had seen a report from El Salvador's Ministry of the Environment that touted the work of a new boat that they had for cleaning up unwanted plants out of Lake Suchitlán.  I didn't think too much about it, because, lakes and rivers in my own state frequently use these kinds of skimmers to extract trash and weeds.  In the video which you watched at the start of this story, you can see the skimmer is actually itself caught in the quagmire of water nymphs, unable to do its job.  The locals talk about the impact of no fishing and no tourism on the local economy.

Fortunately, today, I noted a story from the Ministry of the Environment which says that once again, the lake has become navigable.  That is surely a relief from the standpoint of fish (who were dying), waterfowl (which could not feed or swim), fishing folk and tour operators.  Yet, the Channel 4 video remains as a testimony of the impact which all kinds of human behavior has on the lake and the entire basin of the Río Lempa.  Studies will surely be done to examine the role of climate change in the invasion of the water nymphs.  

Those who care about the health of water in El Salvador are working hard to confront threats from many directions.  For those of us who work and pray in solidarity with the Salvadoran people, we need to do our part to advocate in our own countries against abusive environmental practices which our businesses utilize when growing or producing products in El Salvador.


  1. Here is a video of what the clean-up boat was doing prior to getting stuck

  2. We had a cancelled tour in New Orleans once because of the same problem in the waters.


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