• The Star Staff

Drought could cost water customers on rationing $140 million

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA) clients who are affected by the Carraízo reservoir rationing plan starting today could spend as much as $140 million in a year if the drought continues, said Financial Analysts Association President Juan Villeta Trigo.

In an interview with The Star on Wednesday, Villeta Trigo said the estimate took into consideration what a three-member household would have to invest in order to survive the drought, the rationing plan, the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of the earthquakes in the southwest and Puerto Rico’s living expenses. On a weekly basis, each PRASA client could spend from $200-$300 in a work week, he said.

“These numbers are not meant to alarm readers. But considering what Puerto Rico had to spend during the 2015 drought, this is not as far-fetched as it seems,” the economist said. “However, we don’t know what might happen the next day, as we are unaware if only 140,000 [PRASA] subscribers will go through the water shortage.”

According to a 2015 study led by the ex-president of the Puerto Rico Economists Association, island residents had to spend around $1 billion in order to endure a drought that affected almost 1 million PRASA subscribers. However, Villeta Trigo pointed out, five years ago Puerto Rico didn’t go through earthquakes, the COVID-19 pandemic or the climate change crisis.

“I have no doubt that this could be more expensive,” he said. “However, we must take time to evaluate expenses for households, the local government, private businesses, agriculture and many other contributors to our economy.”

One solution that has been under observation has been the dredging of Lake Carraízo, which, according to PRASA President Doriel Pagán Crespo, could cost around $300 million.

However, the agency expects emergency funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Villeta Trigo said that although the project’s estimated price seems higher, in the long run, the dredging will be less costly than the expenses incurred by all the affected households during the water crisis.

“I still don’t understand why no agency has used local emergency funds, which are around $500-$600 million,” he said. “This is the time to start the dredging. This will help us grow again. It will help businesses grow again.”

CIAPR president: ‘It’s not acceptable to be living with this water shortage’

Puerto Rico Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors Association (CIAPR by its Spanish initials) President Juan Alicea Flores said dredging -- the procedure to remove sediments and debris from lakes, rivers, harbors and other waterways -- is one of the alternatives for solving the island’s water shortage, yet it is not enough.

“Many were not surprised to know that it has been 22 years since the Carraízo Lake was dredged. Many experts have said that this [shortage] was bound to happen,” Alicea Flores said. “Even if we end up dredging the reservoirs, we cannot rely on only one source, we must combine other resources.”

The mechanical engineer declared that Puerto Rico is too advanced a country to be living in such an underdeveloped condition. There have been proposals to battle against these problems, he said, yet the local government has not considered them. Some of the alternatives are combining wells, connecting reservoirs, desalinization and wastewater recycling.

“This seems more like a strategic planning issue than a climate issue,” Alicea Flores said. “We dispose of around 200 million gallons of wastewater a day that could be put into industrial use. Desalinization might seem expensive, but incorporating such a system while using electric power would make this cost-effective. It’s not acceptable to be living with this water shortage. We do not have any contingency plans.”

Soderberg: ‘We cannot rely on rainfall only’ Carl Soderberg, a former director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Caribbean Environmental Protection Division said PRASA is not lacking strategic planning, the agency is lacking a plan for action. In addition, he called on the agency to work on water loss reduction due to a damaged distribution system.

“The distribution system hasn’t been updated in 70 years. You might see a tiny leak in your hometown. However, the pipes underneath have not been checked, making us waste water without seeing it,” Soderberg said. “Puerto Rico lost 140 million trees after Hurricane Maria, making the land susceptible to erosion, and lost around 55 percent storage capacity at Lake Carraízo and even 60 percent at Lake Dos Bocas in Utuado. We cannot rely on rainfall only. We cannot work like this.”

He insisted that the government must consider projects that promote water preservation.

One of the first programs that was mentioned was the EPA’s Water Sense program, which has been applied in states like New York and Mexico and reduces in-house water usage by up to 40 percent. Soderberg said this rate is around 2.5 times what Lake Carraízo produces in a day. The Experts and Climate Change Advisers’ Committee member also suggested wastewater recycling.

“Although nay-sayers might say that such proposals would cost a lot of money, droughts cost a lot more,” Soderberg said. “Due to climate change, experts suggest that droughts might be longer and more frequent as we expect 10 percent less rain showers.”

Droughts are century-old news for Puerto Rico For Puerto Rico, droughts are not a novel thing, notes Universidad Ana G. Méndez-Recinto de Gurabo history professor Jorge Nieves Rivera. Ever since 1847, locals have lived through periods of water scarcity and, nearly 175 years later, history has proven that this phenomena is still a challenge for the island.

“Puerto Ricans have survived water scarcities since last century, [most recently] in 2015,”

Nieves Rivera said. “We survived Hurricane Maria in 2017, yet local authorities are not able to manage our natural sources proficiently. Now, in 2020, we wait for rain to fill our water reservoirs and expect federal funds to fix the problems, even though we understand how bureaucratic this process is.”

The Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean graduate student also suggested that citizens try to understand the issue from a social, political and environmental perspective.

“We must take care of our natural resources,” he said.