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The Problem That Never Goes Away

By FRANCISCO JAVIER CIMADEVILLA

December 2, 2004

Poor water service seems to be so commonplace in Puerto Rico that it’s as if we have come to accept it as normal. It shouldn’t be.

We know what the problems are, but no one seems to be able to tackle them successfully. Government administrations going back decades have attempted their own solutions. Despite relative successes from time to time, the overall problem appears never to go away.

The problem isn’t so much water quality, which is generally acceptable. The problem is the tens of thousands of families throughout the island that go almost all year round without running water. There’s also the problem of water pressure for many other thousands.

Now, a soon-to-be-released comprehensive water plan by the local Department of Natural & Environmental Resources has revealed that, at 750 million gallons a day, water consumption on the island is dangerously near the maximum safe limit–the amount beyond which we could be risking environmental damage in case of drought.

And it appears that as Puerto Rico’s population increases, water consumption will continue its upward trend. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, between 1995 and 2000 alone, water demand jumped almost 20%.

Meanwhile, every time a new water-infrastructure project is proposed, environmentalists and other groups oppose it.

Take, for example, the north-coast superaqueduct. Since the early ’70s, experts had advised the project had to be built to bring some of the water resources in the west to the densely populated metro area. It took more than 20 years for the project to get started. And when it did, it met with fierce opposition from environmentalists and other groups. Today, few would argue against it, as it has proved effective at bringing relief where it was most needed, with 100 million gallons a day arriving in the metro area through the superaqueduct.

Then there is the well-known situation with the water leaks. It is estimated that anywhere between 40% and 50% of the water treated at Prasa plants–water that should be available for consumption–is lost to leaks. Every incoming government promises but fails to solve the problem.

The point is that investment in the development and maintenance of water infrastructure can’t stop. If it stops–even for the four-year term an administration lasts–it is that much more difficult to catch up later.

Whether it is fixing old rusty pipes, dredging reservoirs that have lost water-storage capacity to the accumulation of silt over a 40-year period without dredging (as was finally done in Carraizo in the ’90s), or building new reservoirs and aqueducts to satisfy the demand of an ever-increasing and spread-out population, investing in water infrastructure is the only hope for remedying the inadequate water service in Puerto Rico.

Also compromising the reliability of Puerto Rico’s water supply are management incompetence at Prasa and the disruptive behavior of its unruly union, which have proved not only to exacerbate the problem but also to stand in the way of a solution.

In the past decade, two local government administrations experimented with private management of Prasa. Despite considerable progress, which by and large has gone unrecognized, the overall experiment failed. Actually, as the solutions required aren’t short-term, neither of the two private companies had a chance–mostly because of politics and pressure from the unions. Now that Prasa is back in government hands, the situation is worse.

Recent events have shown that Prasa’s biggest union, the Authentic Independent Union (AIU), is to blame for a great deal of Puerto Rico’s water woes. Besides the specific cases of alleged corruption and other alleged criminal activity under investigation by federal authorities, it’s clear the AIU would serve Puerto Rico better by adopting an attitude more consistent with the times and with the economic reality facing Prasa and the water-consuming public of Puerto Rico.

At a time when the organized labor worldwide is adopting new postures in recognition of economic realities, to the point of making concessions over so-called acquired rights, government unions in Puerto Rico, particularly the AIU, pretend to stick to their guns no matter what.

For way too long, the union has abused the goodwill the people in Puerto Rico typically have toward organized labor. And the people’s patience with the AIU is running thin.