Rural Water Gives Hope to Puerto Rican Utilities Without Water for Months

NARANJITO, Puerto Rico – The Las Cruces water system in Naranjito, Puerto Rico lost power when Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017. The system was without power for over 100 days before officials from the National Rural Water Association arrived to assess the system.

“They were the first to visit us, they were our first hope,” said Jose Marquez, a Las Cruces official. “We’ve been waiting for months.”

The Las Cruces system provides water for 300 homes and one church. The system was initially damaged earlier in Sept. by Hurricane Irma. Repairs were made to the system’s submersible pump, but Maria destroyed the power grid before the repairs could be tested.

“We need power,” Marquez said. “Finding a generator locally is difficult because of the demand.”

Without power, the residents have been forced to carry in water from other locations.

“We have a lot of old people here and children,” Marquez said. “They can’t always travel to get water.”

In some communities, residents are turning to natural water sources, sometimes with serious effects.

“A lot of people are going to springs to get water, some are even bathing in the springs,” explained Kirby Mayfield, Executive Director of the Mississippi Rural Water Association and one of the Rural Water experts providing assistance to Puerto Rico. “We came to one community where everyone had diarrhea and stomach pains because no one had advised them to boil the water.”

“We told them about appropriate boil water procedures.”

Assistance to Las Cruces, like many of the utilities on the island, is complicated by the mountainous terrain.

“Most of those water systems are in the mountainous region of Puerto Rico,” Mayfield said. “The only way to get water is to drill a well at the bottom of the mountain and pump the water to tanks at the top of the mountain.”

Even if the system has a generator, the terrain can make it difficult to service.

“A lot of the roads in the mountains are barely wide enough for a truck,” Mayfield said. “It’s not a situation where they can run a fuel truck to keep the generator supplied.”

Rural Water officials assessed the Las Cruces system and sized an appropriate generator to operate the system. They passed the information to the EPA. The work will not be complete, even with a generator from the EPA.

“These tanks have been empty since September,” Mayfield said. “The lines have been empty since September. When they have pressure again, the tanks need to be inspected and the entire distribution system will need to be disinfected. We need to make sure they can provide good, safe, potable water.”

NRWA sent a water system Disaster Recovery Team Puerto Rico in early January through a grant from USDA Rural Development. The initial visit was to assess the needs of small systems located throughout the island and establish logistical support for future assistance. Emergency power generation for these water systems is currently the responsibility of USEPA through a FEMA mission assignment. NRWA expects to provide ongoing support with the help of USDA. For more information on the status of Puerto Rico’s water systems, visit www.waterprocommunity.org/response.