Why Puerto Rico is Rationing Water, Again

Puerto Rico's Carraizo dam, in times of plenty. (Yarim Correa)
Puerto Rico’s Carraizo dam, in times of plenty: August 2014. (Yarim Correa)

EspañolI stood in the mud at the bottom of what was the Carraizo reservoir. It was my first official press conference as a news reporter for the WOSO radio station in San Juan. The year was 1994, and my wife and I were celebrating the recent arrival of our first child together, and trying to figure out how to take care of a baby without water for 24 hours every other day.

That was my first experience of water rationing in Puerto Rico. From then on, rationing seemed to happen all of the time, due to mysterious broken pipes, somewhere in a field, that were really hard to get to. At least that was the explanation we received weekend after weekend, nearly every weekend for two years, while living in Fajardo in the early 2000s.

At that press conference in 1994, the Puerto Rico Water and Sewer Authority (PRWSA), led by Emilio Colon, announced plans to dredge Carraizo lake while it remained in operation. It was a first-of-its-kind procedure to cut a channel between the upper lake and the lower lake, allowing more water to come into the water treatment facility and thus top up near-empty levels. Regular dredging would help maintain the lakes, which were filled with heavy sediment from frequent tropical rains.

Under Colon’s leadership and with full support of then Governor Pedro Rossello, PRWSA embarked on an ambitious plan to do things right. They admitted that poorly planned development had led to criss-crossing pipelines and supply pipes that no one knew about, not to mention old conduits that had been long forgotten.

The agency was open about the fact that roughly 10 percent of the supply was lost to leaks, and perhaps another 10 percent was lost to theft. People had simply tapped into existing water lines without permission to provide water for homes for free.

Another major plan was to link up the entire island’s water supply, so that if one part of the island was running short on water, supply could be diverted from another part of the island. This would lead to the construction of the not-so-super “super aqueduct” pipeline, despite loud protests by elements within just about every political movement.

As is the unfortunate tradition in Puerto Rico politics, as soon as Rossello was out of office, the next administration under Governor Sila Maria Calderon stopped all such work. No more regular dredging of the lakes, no more interconnection projects, and who cares about people stealing water? Water is a right, right?

Flash forward to 2015 and guess what’s happening in Puerto Rico again? You guessed it, water rationing. The current administration blames a lack of rain. Those of us who have been around long enough know it’s a different story. Gross mismanagement of Puerto Rico’s resources strikes again.

This is what happens when governments focus on keeping people happy today in order to gain votes in the next election. The real problems are always under the public’s radar until something goes wrong. Future dangers are ignored while trying to pay off promises to abusive and greedy public sector unions, and hiding huge budget deficits by borrowing more money than you can reasonably be expected to pay back.

If you live in San Juan today and don’t have water — even though you are paying far more than we did back in 1994 — don’t blame the weather; blame the government and politics as usual in Puerto Rico.

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