• A Rinconvenient Truth

Agua para Puntas: Water Comes to the Barrio

Updated: Apr 1

Five months into one of Puerto Rico’s driest periods to date, Rincoeños in Barrio Puntas tap into long-forgotten wells to end their decades-long struggle for water security. Lee el articulo en español

In the heart of Rincón, there is a community of some 2,300 folks that had grown used to the fact that some days water does not flow in their part of town. They are the people of Barrio Puntas who struggle day in and day out for their rightful access to water, the lifeblood of this surfing town in the westernmost coast of Puerto Rico.

But when Hurricane María tore a hole in the emergency spillway of the Guajataca Dam back in September 2017, something in this barrio finally clicked. While most Rincoeños slowly went back to their lives before the storm, the neighbors of Puntas were being left behind.

“All of our water comes from the Guajataca Reservoir, but we are at the very end of the distribution line. We are always the last ones to get water. That is the problem!” Javier Quiñones protested.

Now, facing what could be an 18- to 22-month-long drought that is drying up its reserves at the Guajataca Dam, the Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA) has started rationing its water service to the home and business owners in Puntas, along 59,000 others across the neighboring towns of Aguada, Aguadilla, Moca, Isabela, Camuy and Quebradillas.

Yet, while others in the region eagerly await for the rain to fall hard on the Guajataca watershed, the people of Barrio Puntas have turned to the aquifers, swelling with groundwater underneath their feet, for a way out of a decades-long crisis.

Water insecurity, a chronic pain for Puntas

Javier, 52, grew up in Rincón, a few paces from Sandy beach, when his town was still a hidden gem known only to locals and some foreigners who would arrive in December and stayed to surf the best waves of the year through April. Since then, he remembered, “we are the first ones to lose our water and the last to get it back every time there is a problem in Guajataca.”

That has not been the story for all Rincoeños. Several years ago, PRASA overhauled its network, disconnecting almost 80 percent of its Rincón clients from the Montaña Filtration Plant in Aguadilla and connecting them to a similar one in Mayagüez. This proved to be critical step in improving the water security of this coastal town but left approximately 2,300 of its clients in Barrio Puntas at a disadvantage to their neighboring communities.

Javier Quiñones is a familiar face for most Rincoeños. Photo: Gabriel Pacheco Santa

Today, Javier and his partner Moraima Sánchez own Tamboo Beside the Pointe, a boutique hotel, restaurant and bar that serves hundreds of tourists and locals alike every week in the heart of Puntas. Tamboo continues to suffer the same water issues the previous owner did almost 30 years ago. On many mornings, when they open the tap, nothing comes out, and Javier is forced to bring in his own water. “We spend between $150 and $500 for every water truck,” to keep the water flowing, the cooks cooking, and the toilets flushing – all day, every day.

In the worst-case scenario, which became very real for Javier, Moraima and other business owners in Puntas in the aftermath of Hurricane María, costs could escalate to $4,000 a month, or about six times their monthly water bill. This additional overhead, Javier explained, jeopardizes the economic activity of his neighborhood, central to Puerto Rico’s tourism industry.

But the local economy is not the only thing at stake here. As Javier noted, these water shortages take a bigger toll on many of his poor and elderly neighbors. Lack of drinking water and proper sanitation for hours and sometimes even days at a time, have put the health and well-being of the eldest and bedridden in Puntas at risk.

According to PRASA’s Regional Director Joel Lugo, “The only problem is that we do not have the infrastructure to move the water from Mayagüez to Barrio Puntas. That is why its residents still depend on Guajataca.”

Part of the Guajataca Dam collapsed after the impact of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. Photo: FEMA

The Guajataca Dam, in critical condition

With little progress on the Mayagüez front, enter Hurricane María. More than a year and a half after the devastating windstorm swept across the island, the Puerto Rico Power and Energy Authority (PREPA) is still dealing with its aftermath at the Guajataca Dam, which sits between the mountains of Isabela, Quebradillas and San Sebastián.

The reservoir’s critical infrastructure, like its emergency spillway, sustained structural damages that threatened to flood entire communities in Isabela. The heavy rain, the United States Army Corps of Engineer (USACE) feared, could burst the dam.

Although the crisis was brought under control in the following weeks and flash flooding was no longer an imminent risk, PREPA and the USACE had to take measures to prevent it from collapsing in the future.

PREPA decreased the water level at the reservoir almost ten feet while the USACE attended its battered infrastructure, but a year and a half into the project, the level has dropped an additional 13ft due to the moderate drought the island has experienced over the last five months. Now standing a little under 188ft, PRASA fears its water reserves it the northwest may dry up if the rains do not come in the next few months.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) have already invested tens of millions of dollars to accelerate the repairs, but the USACE hesitates to put an end-date to the megaproject at Guajataca. Nevertheless, Hydrologist Ángel Román Más estimates it could take anywhere from a few more years up to a decade to fully repair the dam.

Román Más studied Puerto Rico’s hydrological records dating back to 1903 and concluded that the island is experiencing an unusually long period of drought that started last November.

“We hope that in late March, April or May we get normal rainfall, but we really need to plan for the possibility that we could be facing an 18- to 22-month-long drought like what happened in 1997-1998. We need to realize that we live in a tropical island and rainfall patterns are very difficult to predict,” he added.

Guajataca’s vulnerability to hurricanes and its sensitivity to droughts, the hydrologist explained, stress the need for PRASA to implement more local solutions to the water insecurity that pains those at the end of the distribution line – the people of Puntas.

Meanwhile, Javier Quiñones insisted his community could not wait anymore. “We cannot wait another 30 years for the government to fix this problem. We have to solve the water problem ourselves!” he exclaimed.

Desperate for water, the community rises to the challenge

William Bonbright had been wanting to take action as well. Billy, as everyone in town knows him, moved from Washington, D.C. to Rincón, Puerto Rico in 1996, and lived through Hurricane George two years thereafter. There, he met his wife Tiffany and started raising their three daughters. In 2005, Billy acquired Casa Verde, a boutique hotel in Barrio Puntas, where he quickly learned to keep an eye on his water reserves.

In Puntas, where most businesses cater to tourists, he explained, water insecurity is more than a problem, “It can kill your business.” After hurricane María, when the water shortages became longer and more frequent, he got fed up with it. By that time, Billy had moved his family off island but kept fretting about the constant threat to his livelihood.

“I just asked the question ‘Why is our water coming through a hundred miles worth of piping?’ That would explain why we do not have sustainable water. I needed to take matters into my own hands and others will join,” Bonbright hoped.

And they did. Susan Cravey, the founder of Island West Properties, a real estate brokerage firm, had been hearing about water shortages from her clients for year. Peter Avilés, a writer, filmmaker and entertainment event organizer also knew of its impact on the community. Darío Restrepo, who runs Casa Isleña Inn, another guesthouse in Puntas, ran into similar costs as Javier Quiñones from Tamboo.

Together they founded Agua para Puntas (APP), a non-profit organization registered with the Department of State, to educate their neighbors about the status of water infrastructure in Rincón; find a long-term solution to their water insecurity; and raise the funds needed to bring water back to their barrio.

Pumping at a very low rate, the Río Grande II well was the only station operating at the time of the studies. Photo: Román Más Foundation

A sustainable solution flowing right below their feet

Thanks to Bill Rosenblatt, a former mayor of Loch Arbour, New Jersey, who has been surfing Rincon’s waves since the 1980’s, APP engaged Ángel Román Más, a retired United States Geological Survey (USGS) hydrologist whose services came in high demand following 2017’s hurricane season. Their objective: a long-term solution for barrio Puntas.

“I have been working probably harder than when I was with the federal government. Fortunately, the work that I do goes directly to help people get access to water, whether you are in a hotel in Rincón or in a farm in the south of Puerto Rico”, he asserted.

Román Más, at the helm of the Román Más Foundation (RMF), did not think a new source of surface water was the answer for the community. Instead, he argued, the barrio should focus on the aquifer that swelled with groundwater underneath their town, unfazed by the current drought.

Ángel Román Más played a key role in bringing PRASA on board with the project. Photo: Gabriel Pacheco Santa

Soon after, APP paid the hydrologist $3,600 to run a preliminary study. He first looked for answers in a vast inventory of wells he has curated over the years with data from the USGS, Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural & Environmental Resources, and his own foundation’s fieldwork. RMF then chose the three freshwater wells closest to PRASA's main distribution line, which meanders all over Rincón alongside State Road PR-115.

Only one of these wells was operating at the time. The other two had been taken offline at least a decade ago.

“These wells are what we call ‘open hole wells’ that go all the way down to hard rock. They are made up of a combination of limestone and volcanic rock,” he methodically described in both English and Spanish to the residents of Barrio Puntas in late February. Tiny fractures in the walls allow groundwater to sip into the aquifer, where the community could pump its water from, he added.

If his team found out that these wells could supply enough high-quality water for the 858 domestic clients in Barrio Puntas, Román Más thought, PRASA could then rehabilitate and reconnect them to its main distribution line and finally put an end to the community’s water intermittency. But a whopping $56,400 would be needed to put his hypothesis through more rigorous tests out in the field.

Strapped for cash, Agua para Puntas takes a leap of faith

With a plan and a price tag, Agua para Puntas contacted PRASA’s Regional Director Joel Lugo, who recognized the project’s potential, but admitted he could not spare any budget for well exploration at the time. However, if the community saw RMF’s efforts through to the end, the public utility could then deploy emergency funds to quickly bring the wells back online.

On April 2018, APP created a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $56,400 the community needed to test the wells. Donations ranged between $20 and $500, but the non-profit only managed to amass about $3,500 by the end of the year.

In an effort to find additional funds, Javier reached out to Rincon’s mayor, Carlos López, who promised $50,000 during a community meeting in June 2018. Representative for District 18 José ‘Che’ Pérez Cordero, pledged $38,000 at the same gathering, according to several members of APP. However, the timing of the funding remained uncertain and the issue was only worsening.

“Money is the problem. Right now, PRASA does not have $60,000 to conduct viability studies. That’s where the breakdown in Puerto Rico is. This is not political at all. This is a community-based project made up of the residents and business owners of Barrio Puntas. We are going to see this through!” Billy exclaimed during a phone interview with A Rinconvenient Truth.

Out of options and out of time, the members of Agua para Puntas put up the remaining $52,900, out of pocket, to bankroll the Román Más Foundation’s efforts to produce a report "that PRASA could see and say ‘hey, that is a viable concept, let's move forward with that,’” Billy noted.

A hope for Puerto Rico’s first-ever potable water microgrid

On July 2018, RMF and Safety Construction & Engineering (SCE), an engineering firm based in Manatí, PR, set out to study these long-forgotten wells.

One by one, they pulled open the Río Grande I, Río Grande II and Puntas wells, and slipped a camera down the 90-feet-deep water holes to find that decades of neglect had done some serious damage to PRASA’s infrastructure.

In a joint report they submitted to the public utility in late January 2019, they explained that “… the wells were severely clogged with calcium carbonates incrustation (similar to heavy water scaling). In addition, the fissures and cavities within the open-hole sections of the wells appeared to be severely clogged and/or collapsed."

Such conditions, they believed were symptoms of improper well development or lack of maintenance throughout the years, and greatly impacted the performance of the wells during the capacity tests that followed.

“We pumped the wells for 24 or 48 hours straight. While we were pumping the well at different rates, I took measurements to find out how the water level and quality were changing through time,” Román Más explained.

These tests proved the potability of the aquifer’s water, as confirmed by the samples they sent to an independent laboratory certified by both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Puerto Rico’s Department of Health. The combined capacity of the three wells came in at 280 gallons per minute (gpm), which, even after accounting for 70 percent losses in PRASA’s water main, could supply all the needs of Puntas’ 858 family units and its floating tourist population, as estimated by the public corporation.

This capacity, the hydrologist argued, could almost double to 500gpm if PRASA invested an estimated $350,000 to remove the lime scale incrustations at Río Grande I and II, and installed powerful pumps at all three wells.

“When we showed them the results, PRASA immediately realized that this was the way to isolate Barrio Puntas from the problem in Guajataca,” Román Más explained.

In combination with two massive storage tanks already in town, these new wells would enable PRASA to establish Puerto Rico’s first-ever potable water microgrid of the west, here in Barrio Puntas.

“With this new infrastructure, we will be able to supply water to Barrio Puntas from wells that are very close to your homes, but we will also have the capacity to supply you with water from the Guajataca Reservoir if you need it,” Lugo explained to a crowd of 50 people, mostly elderly, who heard the news last week at their community center.

The well is located a few paces from Rincon's post office on PR-115. Photo: Gabriel Pacheco Santa

Pozo Puntas, the way out of the water crisis

Engineer Lugo quickly realized that if Pozo Puntas, located a few paces from Rincón’s post office, could sustainably pump water at a rate above 100gpm, this single well could be the barrio’s early way out of the rationing program.

“Now we are going to isolate Puntas’ water supply system to the point that it does not depend on other systems that are very sensitive to drought periods, while providing water of the highest quality” to the community, Román Más echoed the engineer’s decision with a smile on his face.

By virtue of Law number 92 of 2004, which allows PRASA’s regional directors, amongst other things, to declare a state of emergency due to the critically low water level at the Guajataca Dam, Lugo felt confident he could deploy the $166,000 needed to bring Pozo Puntas back online, so he sent out an expedited request for proposal (RFP) in February 2019.

On March 1st, workers from Constructora de Aguada, which won the emergency contract, were already refitting Pozo Puntas with a more powerful pump. Three to four weeks and some mandatory chlorination thereafter, Lugo predicted, the residents of Barrio Puntas would be able to drink water from an aquifer some 100 feet below their own, without having to worry about the dwindling water reserves up in the mountains of Quebradillas.

A Rinconvenient Truth visited the worksite on March 8th. It was about 4:00 P.M. and the last workers were about to clock out for the day. Outside, one of them was warming up a pickup, while another loaded it with all their tools. Inside the small station, two mechanics were pointing at different components and checking tasks off their list.

Iván Vargas Muñiz set up the chlorination system at Pozo Puntas. Photo: Gabriel Pacheco Santa

According to Iván Vargas Muñiz, a chlorination mechanic working on the disinfection unit, Hurricane María knocked a tree, which took a retaining wall and a fence down with it. The storm’s piercing winds blew out three of the station’s four windows and all of the lighting in the periphery. The electrical panel looked like it was stripped for parts by burglars.

Since that visit, the team working at Pozo Puntas has laid a new underground pipe connecting the well to PRASA’s watermain across the street; built a new retaining wall; put up new fencing around the perimeter; redone most of the electrical wiring; and installed a new and more powerful pump on the well, but the reconnection to PREPA is still pending.

However, PRASA is going to test Pozo Puntas at 150gpm and Rio Grande II at 80gpm, simultaneously, starting this week, using a backup power generator.

“The days that they are supposed to have no water service due to the rationing program, we are going to try for them to get water from these wells,” Lugo explained.

Once it stabilizes the system and fill up the storage tanks, in the next two or three weeks, his team will have effectively freed the Puntas and Río Grande wards in Rincón from the northwest’s water rationing program, which could extend an additional year if rain patterns do not take a drastic turn for the better, according to the hydrologist on the project.

The new wells will be powered by PREPA' s substation at Punta del Mar. Photo: Gabriel Pacheco Santa

Without power, there is no water in town either

Carlos López delivered the news about PREPA's work in Rincón. Photo: Gabriel Pacheco Santa

With the Puntas and Río Grande II wells coming online in early April, the only issue left on the table was power generation, which has been Rincon’s Achilles heel ever since Hurricane María knocked down most of the power lines in town and ripped through PREPA’s substation at the Ensenada ward. Without power, there is no water, as many concerned citizens pointed out in last week’s meeting at the Puntas Community Center.

According to Rincón’s Mayor Carlos López, PREPA is overhauling most of Rincón’s electrical lines and redirecting almost half of them to a different substation at Punta del Mar. This new plan, he added, will split the town’s electrical grid almost in half, with the Ensenada substation generating power for the home and businesses in the Ensenada and Puntas wards, while the substation at Punta del Mar does the same for the people of the Río Grande and Cruces wards – including town square.

He expects that, by the time PRASA is done testing Pozo Puntas, the town’s new electrical grid will be ready to supply power more consistently to these wells from the Punta del Mar substation.

Moreover, Javier Quiñones, from Agua para Puntas, informed his neighbors that District 18 Representative José “Che” Pérez Cordero secured additional funds via legislative appropriations to acquire a backup power generator for each well at a total cost of $90,000. In combination with town hall’s previous investment of $54,000 in five smaller power generators, Quiñones believes that Puntas’ water needs will be covered when the next hurricane comes along.

“The power generators will be parked at PRASA’s stations. Once the power goes out, they will automatically kick-in to restore power and keep the wells pumping water to our homes and businesses,” he answered to one of his neighbors who repeatedly asked about the worst-case scenario, before the whole room filled up with cheers.

This barrio’s struggle for their water security, Javier assured, would soon come to an end.

Engineer Joel Lugo explained his plans to take Barrio Puntas out of PRASA's rationing program last week. Photo: Gabriel Pacheco Santa

Barrio Puntas: a new model for water security

Following the mayor’s news, Román Más said, “You guys are going to have, probably, the first water microgrid in the island. That, not only gives you redundancy in terms of having water all the time, but, in addition to that, PRASA will now be able to respond much faster to water emergencies in town!”

A Rinconvenient Truth caught up with Engineer Lugo after the news conference to learn about PRASA’ next steps in setting the microgrid at Barrio Puntas.

Taking into consideration that more than half of its potential is still untapped and other towns in the northwest still desperately need water, the regional director explained that, once Pozo Puntas is operational, his team will procure additional funds to flush out any lime scale incrustation at the Río Grande I and II wells, and install more powerful pumps, which PRASA hopes to later recoup from FEMA due to the water emergency at the Guajataca Dam.

“If we bring these wells back online, we can actually move all the potable water trucks in Puntas to the highest points in Aguada and Aguadilla, where they are still needed. We could even pump the water that Puntas does not use to the Montaña Filtration Plant, where we can redistribute it to other towns in the region.”

When asked about what he had learned from this collaboration with Agua para Puntas and the Román Más Foundation, Lugo explained that the soon-to-be water microgrid is the perfect example of what he hopes to achieve by working with communities. “When we work together, in unison, things move easier and quicker,” he asserted.

For his part, Hydrologist Román Más hoped the public utility could export this collaborative model to other towns in the region, whose potable water supply will still be at peril due to the critical state of the Guajataca Dam.

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