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Officials Battle With Environmentalists Over Northeastern Aqueduct

Disagreement over aqueduct capacity puts in doubt viability of development


May 6, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

"Some see the glass half full; others see it half empty." The dispute between officials and environmentalists over the capacity of the Northeastern Aqueduct takes this old maxim to extremes, with both sides offering wildly divergent projections of the aqueduct’s service capacity.

At stake is the viability of proposed development in the Luquillo, Fajardo, and Ceiba areas including the construction of several controversial beach-resort hotel projects proposed for a green corridor environmentalists want to preserve (CB March 15).

Infrastructure Finance Authority (AFI by its Spanish acronym) officials say that once the 12 million-gallon-a-day Fajardo Water Treatment Plant is completed, and additional pump stations and pipelines are installed by September, the three municipalities will have their water supply assured until the year 2018.

But according to environmentalists, not only will the plant not satisfy needs for the next 14 years, it will begin operations with a projected deficit of almost four million gallons a day.

Jose Luis Rivera, of the environmental group Initiative for Sustainable Development, said that even though the new plant will process 12 million gallons of water a day (mgd), it will replace a system which currently takes 7.0 mgd from the Fajardo River, making for a net gain of only 5.0 mgd.

Rivera said the Preliminary Environmental Impact Statement for the $68 million aqueduct indicates that in 2000, the water deficit in the three municipalities was already 3.12 mgd a day, leaving only 1.88 mgd of water a day from the 5.0 mgd of the projected capacity.

And the numbers get smaller.

According to Rivera, since 2000, 3,467 single-family walk-ups have been built in the three municipalities, using another 1.4 mgd. This leaves only 480,000 gallons of water a day from the new plant.

Rivera said that in the Preliminary Environmental Impact Statement, AFI also doesn’t take into account the Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Golden Door Spa and Cayo Largo-Intercontinental Resort, whose combined demand exceeds 1.3 mgd a day. On top of that, the demand from another half dozen proposed resorts approaches 3.0 mgd.

Now subtract the tourism sector’s demand from the remaining 480,000 gallons a day, and you get a net water daily deficit of almost 4 million gallons when the Fajardo plant begins operation, said Rivera. This without accounting for additional population growth.

Meanwhile, the picture AFI Executive Director Roxana Santaella paints is so radically different, one wonders if she and Rivera are talking about the same plant.

According to Santaella, in the final Environmental Impact Statement, AFI puts the population of the three municipalities at 96,947, based on an annual population growth of 1%. Multiplied by 120 gallons of water a day (the standard calculation), this requires 11.6 mgd. "We are talking about dry season numbers in the worst cases," said Santaella.

The hotels, both existing and proposed, will require 3.0 mgd, totaling 14.6 mgd, but Santaella said the difference will be made up by smaller water filtration plants in Luquillo (1 mgd) and Palmer (1.5 mgd). Santaella concludes there will be 14.5 mgd available.

Although Santaella admitted the 14.6-million-gallon demand exceeds the 14.5-million-gallon supply for 2020, the Fajardo plant will be upgraded by 2018 in time to meet the demand, and will supply 18 mgd.

So, how can two so dramatically different conclusions be drawn from examining the same water treatment plant?

The main difference appears to be in the deficit of 3.12 mgd, which Rivera detects in the Preliminary Environmental Impact Statement. Santaella said the deficit doesn’t appear in the final Environmental Impact Statement and she can’t see how Rivera arrived at the figure because it isn’t explicitly stated in the preliminary statement.

Rivera said he compared the average volume of water taken from the rivers to the so-called "assured supply," the volume of water the river can reliably provide, leaving a deficit that reflects dry-season shortages.

According to Norma Muñoz, press officer for the Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority (Prasa) eastern region, during the dry season, Prasa’s service to Fajardo does indeed create a deficit in its water supply, though she couldn’t put a number to it. The deficit doesn’t come from the Fajardo plant, which draws water from the voluminous Fajardo River, but from the 18 mgd El Yunque plant that supplies roughly 25% of Fajardo’s 16,050 customers, said Muñoz.

When completed, Fajardo’s water-treatment plant is supposed to provide water to all of Fajardo’s residents including the roughly 4,000 clients now served by El Yunque’s plant. Santaella pointed out the new Fajardo plant will have a 1.6 billion-gallon peripheral reservoir built away from the river to collect water during storms. This reservoir will eliminate concerns over dry-season droughts, said Santaella.

Rivera, though, said Santaella is missing the larger point: The official figures show the dry season will make it difficult to keep the reservoir supplied. "We are extracting more water [from the river] than the area’s resources allow," he said.

In addition to the plant and the reservoir, the Northeastern Aqueduct consists of pipes measuring 2,104 meters and 24 inches in diameter in Fajardo, and 3,103 meters of 12-inch pipe from Fajardo to Ceiba.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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