A Nightmare Comes Back To Haunt Puerto Rico

by John Marino

January 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOPuerto Rico’s nightmare of 1994 has come back to haunt it.

The island’s deteriorated water system, coupled with a stretch of dry weather brought about by El Nino, has once again raised the threat of water rationing in the heart of metropolitan San Juan -- as well as in many other places throughout the island.

For anyone who lived through the widespread rationing that occurred nine years ago, the thought of a repeat of that long hot summer -- which lasted from May 1994 through October 1994 -- is unbearable.

It was the most Draconian rationing plan ever instituted in the United States outside an emergency situation, like an earthquake or a hurricane. It got so bad that some households would receive water just two times a week for 12-hour periods.

Indications are that at least some rationing is likely before summer comes and goes. El Niño, a warming of Pacific Ocean waters, causes droughts in some areas, flooding in others and interrupts Atlantic hurricane activity, among other consequences.

The last two years the phenomenon appeared -- in 1994 and 1997 -- the island was hit with rationing.

But it’s not the weather but Puerto Rico’s water system, neglected for years by both Popular Democratic Party and New Progressive Party administrations, that is to blame for the impending crisis.

There was finger-pointing back and forth this week and last week about which party is to blame for the current state of affairs, but they both share the blame equally.

The Aqueduct and Sewer Authority is a textbook example of how politicking can ruin a government agency.

Political cronies, rather than knowledgeable engineers, often ran the utility, while union benefits and employment ballooned over the years as successive administrations appeased labor in the hopes of winning votes.

The capacity of reservoirs, which are still not enough to meet demand, were allowed to decrease as over-development surrounding them caused massive sedimentation -- and maintenance was shoved aside.

Meanwhile, up to 40 percent of the water produced by the utility was lost to leaks or theft -- among the highest rates in the nation.

Politicking still rules Puerto Rico’s water utility today. The Calderón administration, like the previous Rosselló administration, refuses to raise water rates, among the cheapest in the United States.

Experts say they should be at least triple the current cost -- which would give the utility the cash to undertake the required massive infrastructure improvements.

The price hike would also have an added benefit in that consumers would have an incentive to conserve water usage.

Proponents of the idea also argue that because the Puerto Rico government subsidizes the cash-strapped public corporation anyway, taxpayers are really paying a lot more for the water than their monthly bill states.

Getting water utility revenues strictly by billing users, rather than taxpayers via government subsidies, is fairer, they argue.

Puerto Rico is much better off today than it was in 1994, thanks to the Rosselló administration’s construction of the 50-mile Superaqueduct, which has been bringing 75 million gallons of water daily along the north coast to the San Juan metro area. The Calderón administration will boost production to 100 million gallons a day to try to conserve the dwindling supplies of La Plata reservoir, one of the two reservoirs supplying the Capital with water.

But after decades of neglect, even the Superaqueduct won’t be enough to forestall future a water crisis.

Former ASA Director Emilio Colón said long-term water conservation programs and reforestation of areas near reservoirs must be initiated immediately in order to avert a crisis.

Additional reservoirs are also needed to serve the central and eastern portions of the island.

Providing water is one of the government’s most basic responsibilities, and the commonwealth has failed its citizens miserably over the years in providing it.

Even if official rationing is not declared, many residences will receive no water as low pressure cuts off water to elevated areas.

There are towns in Puerto Rico that lose water service on a weekly basis because of pressure problems. And Santurce, the historic downtown area of San Juan, has such low pressure that many residents say they can’t take showers at home, but resort instead to baths.

Many areas, served by rivers, face water cut-offs even when it rains, as turbidity problems force water treatment plants to shut down.

During the water crisis of 1994, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló never faced a political backlash because it was clear it was a problem his administration inherited.

But there will be no such leniency for Gov. Calderón nearly a decade after those long, hot miserable months forced residents to wait in endless lines at water trucks, creatively arrange their social calendar around when showers were possible and cut cooking, washing clothes and using their bathrooms to a bare minimum.

It was bad enough for residents, but for businessmen — from large scale hoteliers to small mom and pop restaurants — the rationing ate into profits, caused massive inconvenience to clients and raised operating costs through forced investments in cisterns and water purchases.

For Puerto Rico, the stakes are really much higher than that of any one politician.

Another extended bout of rationing will throw doubt on Puerto Rico’s claim to be among the most developed islands in the Caribbean -- a modern, high-tech destination worthy of investment, as well as a beautiful, exotic island that can pamper tourists with all the comforts of home.

If the nightmare of 1994 repeats itself, it won’t just be embarrassing for the administration and a major hassle for citizens.

The island’s image will be tarnished in a way far worse than it would be from the loss of a federal tax break, a rising crime rate or a bout of bad weather.

Puerto Rico will find itself in a unique place within the developed world of having to explain why it can’t provide water to its citizens.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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