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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Part 4/5: Volunteers Test Drinking Water in Puerto Rico

Published: September 21, 2019


By Bobby Bascomb


In 2017 Hurricane Maria knocked out so many trees and powerlines so that roads were blocked and supplies had to be air lifted into remote communities like this one near Utuado, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Coast Guard News, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


(stream/download) as an MP3 file

Hurricane Maria crippled Puerto Rico’s water systems and jeopardized access to safe drinking water across the island. To avert water-borne diseases, one citizen science group in Rincón, Puerto Rico rallied to help test drinking water sources.

BASCOMB: Alright, hey Adnelly, how's it going?

MARICHAL: I'm doing well. How are you?

BASCOMB: Good, good. So this time we're going to talk about water in Puerto Rico. I mean, there's nothing more basic to life than water. But it was a huge problem after the storm,

MARICHAL: It was definitely a very massive problem after the storm, not only to access the water, but to access clean uncontaminated water.

BASCOMB: Right, how did you manage?

MARICHAL: Um, so we were lucky because we have a cistern which collects rainwater. So we were able to use that water, but we still definitely had to boil it and filter it as best as we could, even though we didn't really have a proper filter at the time. But other than that bottled water,

BASCOMB: But if the grocery stores are closed, I mean, even bottled water had to be difficult to come by.

MARICHAL: Definitely. It was not a good situation.

BASCOMB: Yeah, cisterns really common there in Puerto Rico?

MARICHAL: Yeah, it's more common than at least anything I encountered in the States.

BASCOMB: Yeah, yeah

MARICAHL:. And definitely more and more common. One of the big projects, when I've worked with the farms is everyone wants to install a water catchment system, because of the experience they went through after the storm. I mean, never mind being able to water their crops, they were barely even able to get water for their families. So the idea of being able to collect your own water is definitely become much more popular.

BASCOMB: Yeah, I mean, there's really nothing more basic to life than water. And, you know, people told me about drinking juice and soda and drinking from a stream just to get by.

MARICHAL: Yeah, I'd love to hear more about that.

BASCOMB: All right, let's take a listen.

[MARKET SOUNDS]

BASCOMB: Rincón sits on the west coast of Puerto Rico. It’s a mecca for surfers and beachgoing tourists. The town has a quaint square with gourmet coffee shops and a lovely farmer’s market.

[MARKET SOUNDS]

CARLO: Cómo estás? Wow…

BASCOMB: Sonia Carlo has a farm stand at the market where she sells some salad greens, kale, and pineapple. She was on the farm with her husband and 3 children when Hurricane Maria struck. She says one of the biggest challenges was just providing the essentials for her children during and after the storm.

CARLO: And you know, they were just so scared that they weren’t going to be able to drink water. You know, it's hard to tell a three year old “don’t drink all the water, we're going to run out” or “don't eat too much food”. Yeah…

BASCOMB: But when their bottled water ran out, she found an alternative the kids liked even better.

CARLO: I had no choice but to give them soda. So they're -- you know, they're innocent, they said, “We like the hurricane! Mommy’s giving me soda and sweets!” Because, you know we had no choice, it was between letting them go thirsty or giving them, you know, soda -- which, they had never tried soda before. So…

BASCOMB: Eventually the soda also ran out, and Rincón didn’t get reliable drinking water for several months. In that time the incidence of water borne disease increased greatly. There was a sharp rise in gastrointestinal issues, scabies, and leptospirosis, a bacterial infection caused by fresh water contaminated with rat urine.

TOMAR: It really put into focus this water quality issue.

BASCOMB: Steve Tomar is originally from Florida but he’s been living in Rincón for more than 40 years. He’s tall and lanky with long brown hair and a gray beard. He says getting drinking water was a problem for everyone after the hurricane.


Steve Tomar stands in front of Rincón’s only source of drinking water after Hurricane Maria. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

TOMAR: There is no water authority water, and the stores are closed because they don’t have generators. Or if they do have generators they sold out of water days ago. And you knew that it was going to be like that for months. So, you immediately had to resort to whatever your closest source of natural, what we call informal, sources of water were… springs, wells or streams.

BASCOMB: So, you come down here, you dip your cup in the stream and hope for the best.

TOMAR: Yeah, that was literally, for the vast majority of the island, that was it. Just hope for the best.

BASCOMB: And that presented a whole host of other problems. No one had any idea if water from those streams and springs was safe or not. But that was a problem Steve could work on. He’s vice chairman of the Rincón chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and director of the Blue Water Task Force, which tests ocean water quality near the beaches.

TOMAR: So, immediately after the storm people were going hey, can you do something about checking the wells and springs and stuff? And we said, well, we’re not set up for it but yeah, yeah we can do this. Within 3 weeks we could get up and running after the hurricane, as opposed to the government agencies – it was like 3 months at the earliest before they started responding.

BASCOMB: The only tests they had on hand were for enterococcus, a hardy bacteria that can survive in a marine environment, so that’s what they began testing for. After they were able to get the right supplies, they began testing the water for other, more likely, contaminants, including bacteria from fecal matter.

[BIRD SOUNDS]

BASCOMB: I met Steve at a park near a small stream. Little bubbles from an underground spring pop up every few seconds.

TOMAR:This literally after the hurricane was where everybody that lived in downtown Rincón had to come for their water. This was the only source they had.

BASCOMB: So, Steve and his team began their testing here and quickly branched out to include much of the surrounding area. They gave an expedited training course to Boy Scout groups and anyone interested in learning how to do water quality testing. Within a few months they tested most of the informal water sources within a 6 hour radius. After 6 hours, a sample can no longer be accurately tested.

Today, Steve is testing this stream again. He repeats sampling every few weeks to monitor the bacteria count to be prepared for the next hurricane. He takes out a sterile 100 milliliter collection bag.

TOMAR: We very carefully remove the perforated top. And you do not throw your plastic into the environment. No, we have that problem already.

BASCOMB: He holds the bag by a yellow handle and dips it into the stream. Then he takes the sample to a bench under a shady tree.


Supplies for initial water testing at the spring. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

TOMAR: Here we are with our temporary lab set up at the site.

BASCOMB: He tests for ph, temperature, nitrates, chlorine and sediments, and writes down the results on a data sheet.

[WRITING SOUNDS]

BASCOMB: Then he’ll take the sample back to his lab in the Surfrider office and test for the things that can really make people sick, including coliform, enterococcus bacteria, and E. coli. This particular stream has levels of enterococcus at twice the federal standard, enough to close a beach if this were a marine sample. But after the hurricane it was drinking water, so Steve’s team put up signs to notify people.

TOMAR: We had color-coded green, yellow and red signs. Boil for a minute, boil for 5 minutes, and boil for 20 minutes -- and quite frankly I wouldn’t be drinking it in the first place because if you’re finding that much bacteria you’re probably also going to have a lot of other, a whole suite of other problems that you wouldn’t want to use for potable water.

BASCOMB: Steve says in the past, they were reluctant to take on testing drinking water.

TOMAR: Because of course you’re stepping on all sorts of toes with various government agencies and the public health services, and blah blah blah…. After the hurricane that became a moot issue. And it was just like of course you do it, because this is the community. These are your people so whatever you can do to keep them healthy and informed, you do it.

BASCOMB: Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force to test ocean water quality is the largest citizen science program in Puerto Rico. And Steve says it was relatively easy to transition the skills volunteers developed for testing ocean water into testing drinking water. But he sees value beyond just water safety.

TOMAR: In a lot of ways I think the major benefit of these community-based science programs is developing skill sets in the community. An educated populace is of course a populace that’s better able to take care of their own resources.

BASCOMB: Thay-Ling Perez is an intern with Surfrider and local to the area. She says that if there’s any silver lining here it’s the sense of community that came out of working together to get through the hurricane.

PEREZ: You also saw a lot of togetherness and community. People got to know their neighbors, which was a big deal here because a lot of people didn’t know their neighbors, they lived isolated in their world. So it’s still something beautiful that came out of it but it was also from a lot of pain.

BASCOMB: As climate change continues to warm the oceans and create optimal hurricane conditions, big devastating storms like Maria are likely to become more common in the future. Puerto Ricans have painfully learned that the government was not able to quickly respond after a hurricane, so they’re looking to each other instead. And across the island, Puerto Ricans are learning the skills they’ll need to ride out the storm together.

BASCOMB: Gosh, so you know, safe drinking water was such an issue after the storm, a mean, leptospirosis from you know, rat urine contaminating your water. I mean, people died from that it was really serious.

MARICHAL: Yeah, there was a deadly outbreak. And there continues to be concerns about leptospirosis because even after all the water has receded it was just spread around so much, that at least my experience when I was helping farmers clean, sometimes we were asked to put masks and gloves on, because it's really that deadly.

BASCOMB: Wow, even just breathing it.

MARICHAL: Just breathing it yeah, you just don't want to get it on any part of your body. Because even if you're super healthy, it does not matter. So very, very serious bacteria.

BASCOMB: Well, it was really encouraging to me, though, to see people just coming together again, you know, it's the same theme. For every story that I did in Puerto Rico is the same theme of people coming together to try to, to work through these situations together, or to try to, you know, solve the problem in a communal sort of way.

MARICHAL: Yeah, at least in my experience, I noticed a lot of groups coming together to distribute water filtration systems, like really inexpensive ones, where you can set it up yourself, you just get a few buckets from Home Depot. So I definitely saw a push to distribute as many water filters as possible, because, like we were saying before, even finding bottled water got to be a problem. So at least if you were able to filter your own water, that was a huge, huge step and becoming a little bit more resilient.

BASCOMB: Yeah. And I mean, Rincon, where I was, is a popular tourist area. I mean, that's the Surfers Paradise there, you know, it's kind of a fancy little town. And even there, I mean, they were struggling to get safe drinking water. So this was a problem that was just universal across the island. I mean, everybody was affected, from what I can tell.

MARICHAL: Definitely. And I mean, safe drinking water has been a problem for Puerto Rico, even before the storm. I mean, even before the storm, I've read a report that said that Puerto Rico has the least safe drinking water in all the states and territories. There's just a long history of environmental and industrial pollution. So obviously, the storm just amplified and compounded those problems.

BASCOMB: Yeah, I read that too. Actually, I think it's just old infrastructure as well doesn't help the cause.

MARICHAL: The old infrastructure and because of the economic crisis, there isn't the money or there hasn't been the money to do the correct oversight and corrections of problems that have kind of been lingering for a while.

BASCOMB: Even drinking bottled water that's, you know, hanging out in the summer and no refrigeration was available. I mean, that's less than ideal even.

MARICHAL: Yeah, I mean, they say all the time that the BPA in even bottles that say that they're BPA free, you're just getting some other worse version of it. So definitely not an ideal solution. But sometimes the only solution,

BASCOMB: Right. What are you going to do if you're thirsty?

MARICHAL: Right. Environmentally speaking, it's also a huge problem, because we're an island, and there's a very limited amount of space, and also very limited recycling capabilities. So every time you're importing, you know, all these water bottles, I mean, not many are going to get recycled. Pretty much all of them are going to get dumped in the landfills that are already completely overflowing.

BASCOMB: Um, gosh, that's this whole other problem. And then we heard reports, months after the hurricane about shipping containers, you know, just full of supplies, medicine, and food and water, that were just sitting there and not being accessed by the very people that needed them. They weren't being distributed. Did you hear about that?

MARICHAL: Yeah, I heard about that a lot. I mean, I think that the FEMA efforts here were really less than ideal. Pretty much every experience that I had with people that had been, quote, unquote, helped by FEMA, I was pretty shocked at what a poor response it really was. I mean, even when people did get boxes of food, I would look through these boxes, and it would literally just be candy bars and spam. There was nothing nutritious about them. And some of the families would just offer me candy bars, because they're like, we already have enough candy bars. And I was honestly shocked that that was the government's response.

BASCOMB: Yeah. I mean, it must have been really frustrating to know that there were literally people dying of treatable illnesses and dehydration, just sitting, you know, five miles away from a container full of medicine and food and water.

MARICHAL: Yeah, huge problem.

BASCOMB: Yeah. I mean, that begs the question about, you know, whether or not Puerto Ricans will want to stay part of the US following the hurricane. I mean, I think that the thinking has always been, well, gosh, if there's ever a huge problem, the US is there to sort of help us out. But not really, you know. I think FEMA proved that that's not really going to be the case necessarily.

MARICHAL: Yeah, I think that Maria has definitely reopened questions about how to move forward and the state of Puerto Rico as a Commonwealth. And unfortunately, I don't think there are really any clear answers yet. There's still a lot of division, because of the long history of colonization the relationship with the US and a concern over our national identity. So sometimes people are like, oh well, of course, you must want to become a state. But it's unfortunately, so, so, so complicated.

BASCOMB: What's your sense of the breakdown of who thinks what about that in? I kind of think it's about 50/50 statehood versus not.

MARICHAL: Yeah, I mean, the political party lines in Puerto Rico are divided on that very question. And at this point, it is about 50/50. With us small, I think it's like 2.5%, go to the Puerto Rican Independence Party that want just total independence from the United States. So it is a very divisive question here.

BASCOMB: Yeah, I'm sure. As you said, Hurricane Maria brought it even more to the forefront of thinking.

MARICHAL: Yeah, but at the very least, I think everyone can agree that the current situation is problematic, and that not having any representation in Congress is a huge problem, for lots of reasons. But we saw the results of not having representation here after the storm.

BASCOMB: Right, you know, in Texas and Louisiana when they are devastated by a hurricane. The government falls all over themselves to come and help but where were they for Puerto Rico?

MARICHAL: Right? We don't have anyone to speak on our behalf.

BASCOMB: Well, on that cheery note. All right, Adnelly. Well, it was great talking with you, and we'll chat again soon for the next installment here.

MARICHAL: Yeah, I can't wait to hear

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