Drinking water supply requires urgent action

The interruptions in water service to 8,000 customers in  Río Grande and other towns since June 13, and rationing for 180,000 customers of the Aqueducts and Sewers Authority in the metropolitan area, demand the immediate wise use of this resource, with a limited supply in Puerto Rico due to recurrent system deficiencies, significant consumption levels, low rain levels, and high temperatures.

However, promoting adequate storage, treatment, and supply of water must be a priority in PRASA´s infrastructure improvement agenda. And this becomes urgent as soap and water are essential to control the spread of the COVID-19. It is astonishing that on an island with abundant rainfall, water is inexcusably draining away due to the delay and inaction of the Authority in fulfilling its duties.

Two years and nine months after the impact of Hurricane María, efforts to improve the reservoirs are moving slowly. In the short term, there are no signs of dredging projects, which are essential to avoid rationing periods like the one scheduled to start this Friday for those in the line of the Carraízo reservoir, which level is near the critical point of 37.20 meters.

After the 2017 hurricane, experts estimated that the average sedimentation of the reservoirs rose to 20 percent. However, Carraízo, which is largely essential for the water supply in the metropolitan area,  lost up to 45 percent of its storage capacity. The island had record rainfall levels in January and February. But the limited capacity of the reservoirs exposes significant portions of the population to service interruptions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Water is vital for preventive cleaning to fight this potentially lethal disease.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to soon approve millions in funds for the dredging of Carraízo, La Plata, and Caonillas, according to the PRASA. But the availability of resources will not translate into the immediate improvement of those reservoirs.

Therefore, it will be crucial that state and federal authorities swiftly complete the phases that affect the start of sediment removal seeking to restore these lakes. These reservoirs supply water to the island´s most densely populated region. Two of these reservoirs are near San Juan, and the third, in Utuado, supplies the Superaqueduct supplying the northern region and complementing the demand of the metropolitan area.

Dredging processes involve completing a bidding process in which specialized companies present their service proposals to the government. Once the bidding that awards the contract is completed, the process needs permits such as the approval by the Corps of Engineers authorizations and validations of an environmental impact statement. These procedures must be expedited to get the works underway as soon as possible.

Protecting the water supply is also a citizens´ responsibility. Wise consumption and using mechanisms to store rainwater, and others suggested by the Environmental Protection Agency's WaterSense program, reduce the disproportionate use of water.

At the same time, the government's part cannot be postponed and this includes comprehensive repair and replacing deficient lines that cause the loss of up to 60 percent of daily production, as PRASA acknowledged before the Oversight Board.

The main routes to stabilize water storage and supply in Puerto Rico have been already mapped out and include advancing projects to rehabilitate reservoirs, reforest basins where cyclones have removed millions of trees, and encouraging efficient domestic and industrial water use. The integration of all the initiatives should lay the ground for an island with safer supplies and without a frequent tendency to ration this vital element.

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