Soderberg: ‘I regret seeing this rain water go to waste’
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
As Puerto Rico is getting enough rain to fill the island’s water reservoirs due to Tropical Storm Isaias, former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Caribbean Environmental Protection Division Director Carl Soderberg said on Thursday that this is a short-term solution as the water could go to waste due to the reservoirs’ “compromised” storage capacity.
Soderberg said that although the rain that fell during the storm could help Puerto Rico residents have more potable water available in the short term, in the long run, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) must be proactive in maximizing the reservoirs’ storage capacity to prevent more adversity due to droughts.
When The Star asked about his opinion of PRASA opening up three dams from the Carraízo reservoir, the former EPA official said that if the reservoir had more space to store water, the agency could have preserved more.
“I regret seeing this rainwater go to waste; we won’t be able to fully take advantage of this as more than a half of our reservoirs are compromised with sediment,” Soderberg said. “If there would have been some dredging done beforehand, I think that PRASA would not have to open the dams so soon.”
The Committee of Experts and Advisers on Climate Change member said further that although the copious amounts of rain from Isaias would help other water bodies such as Dos Bocas Lake, their storage capacity is compromised around 60 percent with sediment. He said the situation is not getting enough exposure from news outlets.
“One of the other reservoirs that needs more attention is Dos Bocas Lake, which supplies the Superacueducto Water Treatment Plant, and which, before Hurricane Maria, was already 63 percent sediment,” Soderberg said. “After the hurricane, it could have gone up to 73 percent compromised.”
However, according to a 2018 declaration that the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, a U.S. Forest Service program, published in the Los Angeles Times, Puerto Rico lost 480 million trees after the 2017 hurricane, which equates to a third of the forests on the island. Soderberg said the local government has only replanted around 200,000 trees, which represents 0.0004 percent of the loss. The lack of forestation on the island promotes more sedimentation in reservoirs.
“Until those trees are planted once again, our soil will still end up in our lakes, causing more sedimentation and occupying our lakes’ storage capacity,” he said. “Puerto Rico needs a more intense reforestation program.”
Meanwhile, Soderberg also called for news outlets to pay more attention to Guayabal Lake in Villalba and Juana Díaz, which supplies the island’s Southern Aquifer, the condition of which was classified as critical by the commonwealth Department of Natural and Environmental Resources after the 2015 drought. As the lake started drying up and saline levels rose in the aquifer, it led municipalities in southern Puerto Rico to declare a closed season on construction sites in order to safeguard potable water for their citizens. Soderberg said that although the recent rain will benefit those towns, their leaders should develop more forceful measures to stimulate their economies.
“If there’s no water, there’s no economic development,” he said. “Municipalities in the south cannot waste a droplet of water on buildings as they were short on fresh water. Although the rains are great for now as they diminish the drought, they don’t have any monitoring system in the aquifer to detect saltwater. It’s important to not mix these two up.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor released a report on Thursday morning that said drought severity in Puerto Rico decreased between July 21 and July 28. All the same, the rainfall and gusting winds from Tropical Storm Isaias brought adversity to various municipalities, such as Mayagüez, Cabo Rojo, San Juan, Rincón and Vieques.