After The Flood

by John Marino

November 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. At the beginning of 2003, months of dry weather laid bare the commonwealth's long-term infrastructure needs. And as the year headed for a close, the torrential rains of November once again highlighted Puerto Rico's critical planning and zoning problems.

When there's not enough rain, the water utility is hard-pressed to ensure a steady flow of drinking water to its customers because long-term storage capacity is just not sufficient for current demand. When there's too much rain, whole communities are flooded, roadways are devastated and yes again, water service is interrupted because turbidity issues force overloaded filtration plants to shutdown.

President Bush, who was answering a petition by Gov. Calderón, declared several municipalities on the island a federal disaster area over the last week. And there's no doubt that weeks of steady rain, punctuated by bursts of tremendous downpours, which dumped as much as 2 feet of rain in a day in some places, was a bona-fide natural disaster. But lack of long-term planning, coupled with infrastructure lapses, made it worse than it had to be.

Several of the communities that were devastated by the November flood, with homes and personal belongings destroyed and families evacuated, had been flooded repeatedly during previous storms. Clearly, they are located in flood plains, where development of any kind is not a smart idea. Yet, few serious political leaders are talking about permanently relocating the residents of these communities, rather than rebuilding them after the storm.

Relocating residents from such communities, with the government expropriating the land for conservation, would be a fine way both to improve the residents' quality of life and tilt the balance back towards nature in overdeveloped Puerto Rico, not to mention forestalling future tragedies when heavy rains pour, as they often do here. Yet, that plan is not being discussed, even as politicians admit that long-term planning has been lax in Puerto Rico for decades.

The fact that many of these communities are poor barrios only makes it more practicable for the government to relocate their inhabitants. But instead, some flooded areas will get infrastructure upgrades, thanks to Gov. Calderón's $1 billion Special Communities program.

Meanwhile, when the sun finally set on Puerto Rico this month, the most common sight might have been that of the ubiquitous pothole. The rains seriously ate away at island roads; even in the Capital major thoroughfares were eaten away with gaping lesions. Island mechanics reported a boom in business attending to mauled tires and busted axels. The storms also dealt a blow to major highways; a portion of the Luis A. Ferré Expressway collapsed, closing off two lanes, and a landslide closed Highway 10 from Ponce to Arecibo. This latter roadway has been hit by similar calamities during heavy rains since former Transportation Secretary Carlos Pesquera inaugurated it several years ago during the Rosselló administration.

Both the potholes in everyday roads, and the major damage to some of the island's most vaulted roadways, which included more than a dozen damaged bridges, prompted government officials and private engineers to openly question the quality of public roadway projects. Transportation Secretary Fernando Fagundo has previously raised the issue in discussing the reconstruction of the bridge into Condado, saying its deterioration was far worse than could be expected for its age and that its useful life should have been a helluva lot longer. The complaints also paint a picture of laxness in government oversight of its construction contractors.

Puerto Rico's water woes come at a particularly bad time, as the government is now warring with Ondeo de Puerto Rico, the local affiliate of the French water giant which is administering the Aqueducts and Sewer Authority after winning a 10-year contract that took effect July 2002.

Ondeo is saying it was given bad information about the utility and wants to be repaid for unforeseen expenses, which would basically wipe out the $100 million first year savings the Calderón administration has cited in touting the contract.

So far ASA chief Juan Agosto Alicea has talked tough, vowing the multinational firm would get no more money. "Mistakes are paid for with money," he has told local reporters, and threw doubt on the scenario that the water executives could have been duped by the contract, arguing they had ample due process powers to fully investigate its terms and the description of the utility.

Talks over the contract dispute have been taking place in San Juan and Paris, but no hint of an accord has risen from them. There is a very real possibility that the commonwealth will have to retake administrative control of its water utility.

ASA has improved under private administration, which stems back to the mid 1990s, but only marginally. The decay in the agency stemmed from the decades-old practice by governors of picking political cronies, rather than knowledgeable engineers. Meanwhile, 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 has been 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, has refused to raise water rates, among the cheapest in the United States, even though experts say they should be triple the current rate.

Both Ondeo and commonwealth officials have denied press reports that the French firm will bail out of its Puerto Rico operation at any moment. But the private water administrator's performance has worsened during the months-long contract dispute. Union leaders say that repair performance is down, while federal environmental officials say that violations at water treatment plans are on the rise.

Perhaps the parties will reach an accord. But it is becoming more clear that the commonwealth may be forced one day to once again assume administration of its embattled water utility, whether or not it wants to. The spotty performance of private operators, as well as their lukewarm interest in running ASA, is setting the conditions for a return to government control.

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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