The official hurricane recovery website of the Puerto Rico government shows that 92% of the residents of the Island have running water as of this writing. FEMA’s page says that 86% have “potable water.” “Potable” means that the water is safe to drink.
But Mekela Panditharatne, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, is convinced that these numbers are misleading. In a piece in the Washington Post, she says, “Most Puerto Ricans weren’t getting consistently potable water before the storm pummeled the island’s already strained infrastructure.”
Both electricity and running water were unreliable in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria. Panditharatne reports that up to half of the water was lost in distribution. What’s more, nearly 70% of residents were receiving tap water with illegally high levels of bacteria and other contaminants. PRASA, the Island’s water company, has pled guilty to violations of the Clean Water Act repeatedly in the past. San Juan was named the city with the worst water in the U.S. last spring by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In 2016, the EPA stopped providing funds for Puerto Rico’s water authority. This was a financial decision; Puerto Rico’s water authority is in debt just as the electric company is. Once it failed to pay back EPA loans, it lost access and couldn’t continue using those funds. But PRASA was in serious trouble before that. The authority had been announcing infrastructure upgrades but was not actually making those upgrades.
PRASA reached a settlement with the EPA in 2015 for, among other things, releasing raw sewage into the water system. The EPA charged that “the overflows from PRASA’s collection system present an imminent and substantial endangerment to persons who come into contact with discharged waters contaminated with raw sewage.”
Why cutting off funds seemed like a solution to the problem is unclear, but it is certainly clear that without funds PRASA was not in a better position than it had been before.
Hurricane Maria shut down electricity needed to run the water treatment systems and left millions of residents without running water. When the water delivery was restored, however, the problems were not solved. For one thing, a boil order was in place when many residents still had no power to boil that water. Bottled drinking water was rationed to one bottle per person per day in many areas where bottled water was being sold, and many more areas had no stores open where water could be purchased at all.
Highly publicized water bottle deliveries in Puerto Rico continued to fall short of even one bottle per person per day.
Deaths from leptospirosis (a disease stemming from contaminated water) were reported, and many residents were taking the chance of drinking water from flood areas. They had no choice.
Having running water in most households most of the time is a worthwhile accomplishment. However, when that water is not safe to drink, the problem is not solved. Puerto Rico must have safe, truly potable water for all its residents before the issue is checked off the government’s list.