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Can You Drink The Water?

Tap water in Puerto Rico is ‘safe, but not great,’ according to the EPA. New federal standards will force major improvements by 2002.


October 5, 2000
Copyright © 2000 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Swallow hard: water quality at issue while the island still grapples with inadequate supply.

"Don’t drink that water," the mother said to her child at a fountain in a local park. She took a bottle from her purse. "Drink this. Tap water isn’t good for you," she explained.

Judging from the increase in water bottling plants in Puerto Rico, many people agree. But the fact is that water in a bottle with a fancy seal may not be any better than the stuff that comes from your faucet.

"Some water bottling companies--not all--package water directly from the tap, others from a well, and sometimes without any sort of purification process," said a veteran water bottler who preferred to remain anonymous.

Well, not any more. New regulations for bottled water plants came into effect in February of this year. (See related story.) They are expected to bring into compliance or put out of business scores of smaller bottled water companies which have popped up in the last few years wanting to tap into the booming bottled water market.

Bottled water–regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a food product–is required to meet standards equivalent to those the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets for tap water.

"To me it is the same to drink bottled water as it is to drink tap water," said Alex Campo, a hydrologist with 30 years of experience.

Puerto Rico Water Co. technical and compliance director Jean Marc Philipot agreed, "Tap water right now is safe and we are not putting health at any immediate risk."

But how safe is tap water in Puerto Rico, really? CARIBBEAN BUSINESS asked Carl Soderberg, director of the Caribbean environmental protection division of the federal EPA. He put it this way, "Puerto Rico’s drinking water is safe…but its quality could be improved."

Help’s on the way

Starting in 2002, a series of federal drinking water regulations will come into effect to significantly improve drinking water quality.

The 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act directed the federal EPA to raise minimum national drinking water standards. Beginning Jan. 1, 2002, the EPA, locally through the Puerto Rico Department of Health, will enforce new standards known as the Disinfectant/Disinfection By-Products Rule (D-DBP) and the Interim Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule (IESWT).

The new EPA rules will go into effect in January 2002 for larger surface water systems serving more than 10,000 people and in January ‘04 for smaller surface water systems and ground water systems or systems that extract water aquifers.

"It’s going to be a huge effort [to comply]," said Jean Marc Philipot, technical and compliance director at the Puerto Rico Water Co. "Everything will be done in order to comply, but I think 2002 is too soon. During the next year we have to bring all facilities into compliance. In my opinion, except for the major facilities [which supply most of the population] which are not going to be a problem, we will not be able to do it," he said.

The government of Puerto Rico is investing $268 million to upgrade its existing water systems to comply with new EPA regulations while it builds new water infrastructure projects to attend island’s arguably bigger problem of inadequate water supply. The Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewage Authority (Prasa) operates 210 systems of various sizes that provide drinking water to 97% of the population. Sizes range from 50,000 to 100 million gallons per day (MGD).

A product of six years of collaboration among water industry, environmental, and public health groups, along with local, state, and federal government agencies, the new rules are the first of a group of regulations aimed to balance the risks from disinfection byproducts and microbial pathogens.

Generally, the new regulations will protect against a wider group of contaminants as well as tighten the standards for other contaminants, such as cryptosporidium, microbial pathogen, to provide a greater level of public health, noted Michael Lowy, environmental scientist of the federal EPA.

"These regulations will establish much more rigorous standards in the treatment of drinking water and will be of significant impact to the quality of water, especially the ones that will assure the removal of microbiological contaminants," said Olga Rivera, director of the Environmental Health Secretariat Drinking Water Program, P.R. Department of Health, which enforces laws pertaining to drinking water.

Specifically, the D-DBP rule sets standards for the monitoring and reporting of disinfectant residuals and sets parameters, or Maximum Residual Disinfectant levels for these by-products.

Disinfectants that are used to eliminate contaminants in water can react with naturally occurring materials to form by-products that may pose health risks, noted Mary Helen Cervantes, EPA spokesperson. Simultaneously, the EPA has also learned about microbial pathogens that are highly resistant to traditional disinfectant practices, such as the Milwaukee-outbreak of cryptosporidium. "The new rules are to reduce the amount of [disinfectant] by-products but not so far to allow microbial contamination," she said.

Clara M. O’Neill, adjunct technical and compliance director at the Puerto Rico Water Co. adds, "We don’t hear in Puerto Rico incidents such as in the Milwaukee situation in the States due to water." She was referring to the 1993 incident when cryptosporidium caused 400,000 people in Milwaukee to experience intestinal illness and more than 4,000 were hospitalized, while at least 50 deaths have been attributed to the disease, according to EPA records.

The recent incident affecting water supply from the Guaynabo River was the result of a reaction of a chemical dumped by an as-yet unidentified source with disinfectants in the purification process. More than 240,000 people were left without water supply for almost a week in July in the San Juan metro region.

The IESWT rule, in turn, aims at improving the control of microbial pathogens in drinking water. It tightens the numerical standard for water turbidity from 0.5 to 0.3 nephelometric turbidity units. Water turbidity or "cloudiness" refers to the amount of solids dissolved in drinking water. High levels of turbidity may interfere with proper water treatment and monitoring.

"Instead of looking at the filters as a compound system, the regulation will require application of the new standards to each filter individually," said Lowy. "By meeting turbidity standards, other new pathogens will be addressed."

Similar to other States, Puerto Rico has primacy, or takes on the responsibility for its drinking water program. The federal EPA steps in only if a State or territory is not able to comply with federal EPA requirements.

"The tendency is for EPA to get stricter and to further regulate additional contaminants during the years to come," Rivera said.

"Puerto Rico gets no special treatment," Philipot added.

Underlying problem of underground water

Despite criticism, Puerto Rico’s record when it comes to drinking water-related health is actually quite good. "Contrary to public perception, Prasa has good quality water," said Campos.

One hundred years ago, typhoid and cholera epidemics were common and usually attributable to water problems. Nowadays, typhoid and cholera are rarely a problem, but other chemicals and microbiological contaminants are endangering surface and ground water supply, thus presenting new and different types of health risks. Exposure to such risks can result in long-term chronic diseases, which are not easily diagnosed.

The Centers for Disease Control report an average of 7,400 cases of illness in the U.S. linked to drinking water each year from 1971 to 1985, according to the EPA. Total reported cases in this period ranged from 1983’s high of 21,000 to 1985’s low of 1,600.

In Puerto Rico, there are no reported waterborne outbreaks registered, Carmen Deseda, state epidemiologist told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. "Tap water in Puerto Rico is filtered, unlike in some states, which prevent these outbreaks," she said. Deseda said that in the States it is allowable to distribute water directly from a lake without any additional filtering processing if it complies with EPA regulations.

Stricter EPA standards at the tap will help, but not solve the underlying problem of water quality in Puerto Rico. Experts agree it is contamination of the island’s aquifers, a major source of drinking water in Puerto Rico, which significantly contributes to the local water problem.

About 18% of Prasa’s water comes from aquifers. Prasa operates 500 wells and the Department of Health has had to close some 67 wells due to contamination in the last five years.

"If nothing is done to prevent further [aquifer] contaminations, there is going to be a general collapse [in the water supply system.] Excessive contamination will further aggravate the local water problem," said Campos, whose company, Campos Drilling Inc. is a major well contractor.

Puerto Rico’s situation

Two years ago, the government’s Infrastructure Financing Authority (AFI by its Spanish acronym) stepped in to assist Prasa with a program to update existing systems to meet the new regulations. (CB cover story, AFI funds the flow, March 2, 2000) New water infrastructure projects developed by AFI will all be in compliance.

Under the AFI, there are 490 projects at a cost of $173.9 million to provide water where delivery has been sporadic at best. These projects range from pumping stations to treatment plants and pipelines. Under the category of strategic projects, AFI has earmarked $1.5 billion for filtration plants, regional aqueducts, and wastewater treatment.

"This year we have performed several improvements in Metro area plants such as the addition of filters and sludge removal systems," Philipot said. Prasa also invested $35 million to cover a drinking water tank in Guaynabo and for the construction of a 20 million gallon tank at the Sergio Cuevas plant, which according to Philipot is already in compliance with the new regulations. Earlier this year Prasa started testing a $1.9 million water treatment plant, in order to test the best available technology before its implementation in the real plants.

As new systems come on line, some of the smaller systems will be phased out and the water from new plants will be under compliance, noted O’Neill. She said it is better to invest in a new system than to attempt to upgrade older existing ones. "Because of their age, it is difficult to upgrade them to a point where they can comply. Because demand is so high, we are operating them above their designed capacity," said O"Neill.

"These are very old facilities. There are a lot of systems that were constructed between the 1950s and the late ‘70s, which are working fine. But then we have another wave of newer facilities that have been constructed in a hurry," Philipot added. "It is going to be difficult for the very small systems," he said, even though their compliance deadline is 2004.

And the road to compliance is rough. "It is more difficult for Puerto Rico due to the great number of different water systems here. In most States, there’re only three to five major systems," said Clara O’Neill.

In Puerto Rico, there are more than 250 non-Prasa systems, i.e., isolated water supply systems sourced by wells and run by small communities, not even by the municipal governments. Many of these are in very precarious condition in terms of water quality. "Our biggest problem is the small water systems that are not connected to Prasa and usually serve small communities. Many of them don’t receive any maintenance," said Olga Rivera, adding that 80,000 to 100,000 people in Puerto Rico depend on these systems.

When asked about how the regulations will affect local water quality, Philipot allowed it will be "a significant improvement, yes. But you see, a significant improvement

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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