The fact that local authorities consider rationing drinking water in the northwest should be taken as an opportunity to speed up broader improvements in the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) infrastructure, aiming to create a storage and treatment system and an efficient service throughout the island.
Current circumstances call for the rehabilitation of the system as part of the island´s reconstruction, in coordination with federal authorities that would grant funds for that purpose. The new challenge that nature and poor infrastructure pose on the island –that has been experiencing below-normal rainfall for months- requires the immediate development of major projects at facilities battered by Hurricane María. These projects should include dredging to address sedimentation.
A significant drop in the water level of the Guajataca lake has resulted in water rationing that will begin on February 20. This dam, that was the most affected by the hurricane, reflects the impact of low rainfall. Although in the short term, rationing would only affect part of PRASA customers in Aguada, Aguadilla, Camuy, Isabela, Quebradillas and Rincón, rationing represents a reminder for all Puerto Ricans to be careful in the use of water.
It is commendable that northwestern municipal governments have contingency plans that include bringing tankers trucks to communities that will not have water for extended periods. However, it will be necessary to guarantee water supply to critical facilities such as hospitals, care centers and schools and to provide the required personnel and equipment to serve these populations.
On the other hand, it is also imperative that local authorities –in coordination with federal officials- work hard to achieve efficiency in water service, with minimum water loss and appropriate treatment. Customers demand good and quality service. Billing and charging systems should be clear, fair and efficient.
A great challenge is to address the loss of treated water. According to 2018 estimates, PRASA loses 42 percent of the water it processes due to damaged tanks and pipes. Theft through illegal connections worsens the situation. We hope that the corporation's projects will stop water loss. Authorities must ensure that those who steal water face the full force of the law.
Meanwhile, the US Geological Survey estimated that after Hurricane María, dams lost 29 percent of their storage capacity due to sedimentation increase. The priority agenda includes dredging lakes Carraízo and Dos Bocas, key to the water supply to a large part of the population. The proper implementation of those projects properly will limit the island's vulnerability.
It will be crucial that dredging, as well as repairing main and secondary pipes, among other key aspects of the system, are executed comprehensively so that the rehabilitation will result in a cost-effective service.
The task involves tuning between the Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources as well as PRASA. The environmental agency is tasked with the protection of aquifers, which are seriously threatened in the southern region.
The task includes accurate plans such as the repair of the water monitoring center in Caguas, which will be redesigned to withstand extreme weather events. The facility houses the largest testing laboratory among the four operated by PRASA to ensure that water is safe for consumption.
As part of the reconstruction process, steps toward modernizing this vital system have to respond to transparent processes that will allow water infrastructure to support our sustainable development.