by Sami Kinnunen
The second presentation from the Arizona State University student group was led by Victor Ruiz-Aveilés who gave a presentation on the effects of Hurricane Maria on the potable groundwater system in Puerto Rico. Victor touched on many issues including the high level of coliform bacteria in river water, the relatively high daily use of water for the entire country but mainly focused his time on the viability of community water systems to reduce the vulnerability of the Puerto Rican rural populace. This use of community groundwater wells greatly interested me as the sustainability of groundwater pumping systems is also the focus of my research project.
The communities that were connected to the centralized water system provided by Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewer Authority (PRASA) were without water after Hurricane Maria due to the loss of electricity. Even after generators were being used to run the water treatment plants and pump water, the focus was directed towards providing water for urban centers and the rural communities were largely ignored. These rural communities, often situated in the central mountain range, were without access to potable water for seven to ten months after the storm. The idea was to look at rural communities with groundwater wells that were separate from the main utility to analyze the speed at which communities regained access to potable water. These systems are very attractive as having a localized pumping and water reservoir uses much less energy than having the centralized system pump water all the way from sea level into the mountains. In an already energy stresses system, having the ability to operate off grid would be a huge boon for these local communities.
Victor focused his research on the Aguada municipality on the northwest side of the island. In Aguada there are currently 6 groundwater systems that serve 7% of that population. However, these wells are operated at a much lower level then they are built for as they only need to serve the needs of their specific communities. If the wells were turned on to their maximum level these 6 wells have the capability to supply 25% of the entire Aguanda municipality with water. However, the water would still need to be delivered to the rest of the communities in the area even if it were extracted. I asked if a sustainability study had been completed to see what the long term water levels would look like if the pumping rates were increased that much and he replied that he is exploring that section of the research currently. These groundwater wells can and will be a sustainable long term solution to rural communities water issues but first we need to determine what amount of water can steadily be removed without draining the local aquifers.
There are many aspects of groundwater that still need to be questioned and answered about the amount of wells needed to effectively supply Aguada but, thus far, community operated groundwater wells are an attractive choice for community resilience in the face of another power outage. Needless to say we had a lot to talk about once he finished his talk.