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Steve Tamar, vice chair of the Surfrider Foundation, tests water samples he collects each week. His findings suggest a rise in bacteria found in fecal matter and sewage is killing a species of coral that’s already nearly extinct. Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico
Environment

New Developments in Popular Puerto Rican Tourist Area Overwhelm Sewer Infrastructure, Threaten Endangered Coral Reefs

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s coral reefs, already in danger of extinction, are now further threatened by bacteria from fecal matter. Experts and activists say that the problem is coming from an overwhelmed sewage system in a popular tourist area, and that if not addressed, the damage will soon be irreversible.

RINCÓN, PUERTO RICO — Known for its beautiful beaches, magical sunsets, coral reefs and water sports, Rincón is one of Puerto Rico’s most popular tourist destinations.

The formal population of this municipality on Puerto Rico’s western coast is just 13,627, according to 2018 census estimates. But there are an additional 100,000 “floating” residents, or people who visit or live here for short periods of time, according to the municipal tourism office.

And those numbers are on the rise.

Since Hurricane Maria devastated much of the island in September 2017, developers have been converting new homes and hotels to support the growing tourism industry. Now, the area doesn’t have the infrastructure capacity to host all of its new visitors, says Juan Carlos Pérez, public relations officer for the Rincón Municipality.

And local marine researchers agree. They say there’s something in the water that could threaten both tourists and the elkhorn coral, a species which is already at risk of extinction south of the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve.

Poop.

There is too much bacteria, which comes from fecal matter, in the water, says Steve Tamar, vice chair of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, which monitors ocean water quality, and director of the Blue Water Task Force program.

From his office and laboratory, tucked among boxes and the coastal water samples he collects each week, he says the quantity of bacteria from fecal sediment is on the rise.

This type of bacteria, which is found in sewage water, can cause infections in the skin and nasal membranes. “They can also cause sickness and infection in people,” Tamar says.

The municipality’s sewage system is overflowing into the ocean due to overload at the pump, which is endangering the coastal waters and the health of coral reefs in the area’s prized Tres Palmas Marine Reserve.

Still, Pérez disputes that the level of contamination is widespread.

“It’s small, it’s not a river,” he says referring to the flow of sewage into the sea. “It doesn’t represent a lot of contamination for that area.”

Betsy Bonet, a municipal legislator, disagrees. She says the local infrastructure wasn’t designed for this magnitude of growth.

The sanitary pump systems were installed by the Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority, Bonet says. But other community members allege that the system was recently expanded without authorization to serve new housing developments, which led to the leakages.

Representatives from the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority did not respond to requests for comment about whether or not the system was connected to new housing projects without authorization.

But for the area’s many marine biologists and environmental organizations, the more pressing issue is testing the true damage that the increase in fecal bacteria is having on these endangered coral reserves.

The Tres Palmas Marine Reserve was established as a protected space in 2004. In coastal waters fit for recreational use and up to three miles out, the density of bacteria found in feces and sewage, should not exceed 70 colonies per 100 milliliters in order to be safe for swimming, Tamar says.

But local samples confirm that bacteria levels here are as much as three times higher than that.

But local scientists don’t have the budget or the permission to investigate further and truly understand the impact on the endangered reefs.

“We can’t test whether the runoff affects the marine reserve,” Tamar says, adding that they need permission from the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority to study the reef.

A study on the health of the reef, conducted in 2011 by the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Public Health, confirmed that the elkhorn coral, especially in the southern region of the marine reserve, was suffering from diseases associated with coastal fecal contamination from proximity to human settlements and poor functioning and maintenance of septic tanks.

But much more testing can be done.

“What I want is permission to use a tint called rhodamine,” Tamar says, referring to a product that makes bacteria visible by tinting them red or making them visible under ultraviolet light, which would allow him to observe the extent of contamination from the gorge overflow.

The consequences of inaction are serious, says Berliz Morales, a marine consultant for the research, education and community engagement program Sea Grant, which operates at the university with federal funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

She says coral is vital, and not just because it’s a tourist attraction. It creates a barrier that protects the shore from flooding during storms and floods.

“It’s our barrier against the big surges,” she says.

Allison Braden, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.

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Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean Sea. It is a self-governed, unincorporated territory of the United States, which means that the United States maintains control of Puerto Rico but people in Puerto Rico elect their own Governor and Assembly.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans have United States citizenship and are permitted to move freely between the United States and Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans who reside in the United States maintain the right to vote for U.S. president. However, Puerto Ricans who live on the island of Puerto Rico are not allowed to vote for U.S. president.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is home to 3.2 million people. But the number of people residing in Puerto Rico has dropped significantly since 2004. Puerto Rico saw the most significant population drop in the months and years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. 5.6 million people who live in the United States claim Puerto Rican origin. About a third of those people were born in Puerto Rico.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has a $73 billion debt to the United States. But as a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico is unable to file for bankruptcy like a U.S. state. In 2016, President Barack Obama and Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) to oversee Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan and address Puerto Rico’s debt to the United States. Seven members, appointed by the U.S. president, sit on the PROMESA board. The Governor of Puerto Rico appoints one ex officio member.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

The complex financial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico dates back to the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly referred to the Jones Act. The Jones Act requires that all goods be shipped to Puerto Rico by a primarily U.S. crew on a U.S. vessel. Based on a 2018 survey by Advantage Business Consulting, the Jones Act greatly increases costs of everyday items for Puerto Ricans, including food. Shipping containers to Puerto Rico costs $3,027 compared to a similar international shipment, not subject to the Jones Act, which would cost $1,206 for the same distance.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican politics is dominated by the question of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States. The Popular Democratic Party supports Puerto Rico’s current status, while the New Progressive Party hopes to make Puerto Rico the country’s 51st state. A small third party, the Puerto Rican Independence Party, strives to make Puerto Rico an independent country.

Photo by Gabriela Ortiz Díaz, GPJ Puerto Rico

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced a water study and the density of fecal bacteria in coastal waters fit for recreational use. Global Press Journal regrets the error.

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