Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) has written to United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to formally request that the Department of Defense review all authorities in federal law and all available federal resources that may enable the Department to help the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) restore water service in municipalities affected by the drought.
The letter details the impacts of the drought on the island, including reduced classroom hours in public schools, cancellation of school on Fridays, and the water rationing that is occurring in the San Juan Metropolitan Area. The letter also mentions multiple ideas that have been brought forward in recent days about the types of assistance that the Department of Defense might be able to provide. This includes deploying to Puerto Rico Navy ships that have desalinization capabilities, or activating the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to drill new water wells or provide a supply of emergency drinking water that would supplement PRASA resources through construction of small emergency water lines around the island and delivery of water into affected communities by tank trucks.
“In certain cases the Department of Defense has authority in federal law to perform civilian and humanitarian missions, particularly in times of natural disaster. We know, for example, that the Navy has provided bottled water to Haiti when hurricanes struck there and that there is a defined process in federal regulation for securing assistance from the Army Corps for U.S. states and territories affected by drought. The Department of Defense does not typically get involved in drought situations, except for the limited authorities applying to the Army Corps. There is precedent for hurricanes and earthquakes, however, and I want to make sure every possibility is explored given the worsening drought conditions and water rationing we are facing in Puerto Rico. That is why I wrote the letter today,” said Pierluisi.
Of immediate interest is implementation of assistance that the Army Corps of Engineers can provide. Under federal law, the Army Corps may provide temporary emergency water assistance for human consumption in a drought distressed area to meet minimum public health and welfare requirements. This assistance would supplement PRASA operations, and can only be provided upon a written request from the Governor.
“I urge PRASA and the Governor’s office to complete all the paperwork so that the Army Corps can evaluate all options for assistance as soon as possible,” said Pierluisi.
“I would also note that, if the effects of a drought overwhelm local resources, the President, at the request of a governor, is authorized under the Stafford Act to issue major disaster or emergency declarations resulting in federal aid being provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA, to affected individuals and communities. Although drought-related declarations are rare, they have been issued in the past. Therefore, I urge the Governor to seek appropriate FEMA assistance without delay,” added the Resident Commissioner.
The Resident Commissioner’s office has communicated concerns about the drought to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Secretary may expand the disaster declarations already made on July 15th and August 5th for 20 municipalities based on the U.S. Drought Monitor. These declarations make low-interest emergency loans available to farmers and ranchers who are suffering losses because of the drought, and as well as other forms of direct assistance.
The Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) is also in the process of working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), specifically the Food and Nutrition Service, to modify school breakfast and lunch menus to include food items that do not require water for preparation. PRDE previously announced it intended to cancel school breakfast at over 350 schools in the school district of San Juan on days when the schools would have no water. Pierluisi immediately expressed his concerns over this decision to USDA, which has been working with PRDE to find alternative food items that would meet the federal nutrition standards and ensure school breakfast and school lunch can be served for at all affected schools without interruption.
“A child should not have to go hungry or be denied a meal because of drought beyond their control,” said Pierluisi.
The Resident Commissioner’s office is working on both short-term and long-term solutions for better water management on the island. The Bureau of Reclamation, which is a federal agency under the U.S. Department of the Interior charged with helping address drought conditions in the Western United States, is also authorized to provide assistance in the four other U.S. territories: America Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Pierluisi is considering the introduction of legislation that would amend the Reclamation Act to include Puerto Rico—which would open up more levels of federal assistance to plan for, and build, water supply and storage systems on the island.