Water that can’t be seen
For humans, every place that is habitable is the beginning of a path towards water. To live is to befriend it, like for every other species. Make a neighbor out of it. Take care of it. Every “placist,” wherever she is, is also a “waterist” even if she’s not aware of it yet, even if she doesn’t know where the water that sustains her is flowing from, or where it swells. That proximity to a fountain could not be any other way. Sharing the collective map of available water was an evident matter when our spatial coordinates and our quotidian routes coincided with the simple geography of the landscape before our eyes. Situating ourselves here or there, demarcating the place that we live in, choosing a landscape to be—or a landscape to come and go to—was establishing a series of places vis-à-vis the places to which water belonged to. It’s no longer like that. The water that is needed for life makes an unknown route towards each of us. For most, fresh water has succumbed to the magical act that makes it disappear as a place in a map, as a convening space, and reappear shyly at the faucet or shower’s little stream that we so carefully regulate. Fresh water stopped being a geography and become an occult and estranged flow with which it has become impossible to establish the relationship we need in order to take care of it.
Not without making a certain effort, I recently learned that the water that comes out of the faucets in my house—salty and with traces of heavy metals—starts its route to my neighborhood from a reservoir that is 34 miles away. Constructed over half a century ago, the Luchetti Reservoir in Yauco is the same age as my country’s constitution and, much in the same fashion, it has lost half of its abilities. The environmental group Frente Unido del Valle de Lajas (United Front of the Valley of Lajas) warned the Puerto Rican press last summer that “the last evaluation that these reservoirs went through was 20 years ago, from 1997 to 2000, and these established that they had lost 33% of their capacity.” “We estimate,” said the ecologists, “that the sediment levels were actually critically high.”1
The Lucchetti Reservoir, one of 36 reservoirs built in a country that lacks natural lakes, was designed —like almost everything that was designed last century— for the modernization of the country. It would be used to generate electricity, for agricultural purposes in the Lajas Valley, and to aide in the domestic needs of the nearby municipalities. The reservoir is fed by the Yauco River, the Loco River (and its corresponding tributaries), the Duey River, and the Quebrada Grande (or Big Ravine). Notwithstanding, the tributaries are lacking the flow that is necessary for their operation. Through a system of tunnels, water from two other reservoirs is rerouted towards the Lucchetti one: the Yahuecas in Adjuntas and the Guayo, between Adjuntas and Lares, which are both in slopes that are in the north basin of the Río Grande in Manatí. The water in the Lucchetti Reservoir is unloaded in the irrigation canal of the Valley of Lajas, linking three independent hydrological systems on the south of the island—the ones of Ríos Yauco and Loco, and that of the irrigation canal of Lajas—and feeding them with supplies that come from one of the most important rivers of the North.2
The fresh water gets to my neighborhood through a route that is inscrutable on any map. To reconnect with it—and look after its health like it looks after ours—it would have to become visible, we’d have to learn how to check on the conditions of the bodies of water that supply it. If we don’t rebuild the route of the water that sustains us and that to an extent we all have lost, community after community, neighborhood after neighborhood, we won’t reestablish the relationships of mutual care that we should have with life itself. We also won’t be able to reintegrate the new quotidian geography in which it was an essential referent for thousands of years. It will remain, like it is now, in the long list of things that modernization made impossible for us to understand.
Those who insist on believing that the government adequately addresses these issues of vital importance have only to check the recently published tweets by the Autoridad de Acueductos y Alcantarillados (AAA), or the Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA). Their hashtag #GotaAGotaSeAgota (drop by drop it runs out) is a mea culpa. The communicator assumes that the community is only interested in the route of the cistern trucks during the days that the service is interrupted without thinking about a strategy to recuperate the aquifers that feed it. By hiding the routes of life, we are normalizing the conditions of disaster.
Their hashtag #GotaAGotaSeAgota (drop by drop it runs out) is a mea culpa. The communicator assumes that the community is only interested in the route of the cistern trucks during the days that the service is interrupted, without thinking about a strategy to recuperate the aquifers that feed it. By hiding the routes of life, we are normalizing the conditions of disaster.
From the schematic path that the water that gets to my neighborhood takes, I can only recognize one of its elements. I cross the Río Loco on the way to work at least twice a week. If traffic is slow, I go and look for it before it hides beneath the bridge below which I drive. The last time its flow flooded this same bridge and stopped traffic for several days, Hurricane Maria had deposited 37 inches of rain over Toro Negro in Ciales, there where Manatí’s Rio Grande gives us its water without knowing that it does so. 3 When the abundant mountain rains make the Rio Loco become especially true to its name, the service is suspended for those of us who depend on the irrigation canals of the Lajas Valley. After Hurricane Maria, it took weeks for the joint brigades of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority and those of the nearby municipalities to remove the mud formed by the thunderous torrent. With the canals flooded and the faucets dry, we went back to relying on the rain as our only water source for many days. Of all freshwater, rain seems to be the only one that resists the spell of engineering, although it is not immune to the effects of the so-called “development” nor to the growing calamity of the climate crisis.
Water that is always there
Before becoming rain, or a spring, creek, torrent, current, reservoir, runoff, aquifer, or irrigation, each drop of water was a wave in the sea. It was oceanic deepness. The water that roots us to a place is fugitive from a sea to which it must irremediably return to. The rain that falls from the sky has suspended its salty, marine life origin. That original water, impossible to drink or to ignore, is the only one that is always present in my neighborhood in which, besides being a place where it rarely rains, is also very far away from its water supply.
Puerto Rico has 800 superficial water currents and 1,255 beaches in its 799 miles of coast. In my coastal town, there is one out of every ten of the country’s beaches. Only the island municipality of Vieques has more.4 Here, it is not necessary to get close to the coast in order for the sea to become ubiquitous. I see it when I take out the trash, when I go get my mail from the mailbox, when I cross the street to go get the package that my neighbor kept for me, when I get in my car to go anywhere. Since there are no parks or libraries where I live, every outing leads to the ocean. If it’s too hot, you go back. If you want to take time off for a few hours, it is there waiting for you, just as it’s there when your friends from out of town come to visit, when you want to celebrate a birthday, or have a special new year’s eve.
After Maria, this constant presence, this shared horizon that defines the geography of the entire region and that accompanies my being in this world, was not sufficient to anchor my sense of belonging in the only place I’ve ever considered my home. Even with all of the salt water that glimmered under the sun as if nothing had happened, surviving the sequel of the hurricane implied an imaginary relocation, a renegotiation of the conditions of my permanence in a place that I share with so much coast, an arsenal of new strategies to anchor me to the salty geography where I have been happy.
For many of my fellow citizens, the relocation has not been imaginary at all. To the prolonged absence of the water that left us without us ever having found out where it came from, and that of the electricity that threatened us with not coming back, we had to add the damages to the households, the closing of the schools, the loss of salaries and income, and the lack of access to essential services such as healthcare. All of that absence left us feeling uprooted. Before people left their places, those places had deserted them. Like a house that is torn down by the wind, places implode and become incapable of sustaining the life that was there before. Even though the numbers vary, a series of very educated calculations estimate that from September to December of 2017, 208,000 people left the islands of Puerto Rico. By the summer of 2018, 143,000 had not returned.5
Among those of us who could remain—a type of luxury that fertilizes the survivor’s guilt that many of us suffer from—I observe a relocation in situ that expresses itself in two different ways (although there are probably many more). I am glad about the intensity with which we approach small and large investments to diminish the possibility that the beloved place may abandon us again. More than a reconstruction, it sometimes seems like we are going through a sort of “bunkerization.” Humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross and the Mercy Corps, and environmental organizations such as Para la Naturaleza and Casa Pueblo, are on their way to completing the installation of photovoltaic systems with battery backups in hundreds of community centers to add sustainability and autonomy to the communities where they are embedded.
Casa Pueblo, which has energized family households and local businesses with the same technology, now drives the construction of a micro solar network for the city center of Adjuntas. The first communal solar network, which already energizes two dozen households was established in Toro Negro in Ciales, right near where Manatí’s Rio Grande begins. The first Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña (Hydroelectric Mountain Cooperative) competes to rehabilitate the dams of two of the reservoirs in Utuado —the Caonillas and Dos Bocas lakes—to produce the 43 megawatts which are its maximum capacity. This could sustainably maintain the energetic demands of three neighboring towns—Jayuya, Adjuntas, and Utuado—and allow subscribers the opportunity to sell the considerable surplus to the nearby city of Ponce.6 The first Mountain Energy Consortium was formed by the mayors of Villalba, Orocovis, Morovis, Ciales, and Barranquitas to generate 130 megawatts of power through Toro Negro’s hydroelectric plants. These plants, in turn, will count on solar farms and a power storage system.7 15,000 subscribers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) already save the country 70 megawatts by participating in this net metering program. They can send to the PREPA the surplus power that their homes and business produce in exchange for a credit.8
If a will to depend on power sources that did not depend on imported raw materials was added to the hundreds of home and community gardens, the thousands of systems that collect rainwater, the grants given to local farmers, the momentum given to agroecology and reforestation projects (among which the ones lead by Para la Naturaleza stand out), one would have a map of a country that is fighting to support its places in order to remain. We are building conditions of permanence in the wake of adversity. We are not putting things back in their place, rather we are adding decentralized ways of storing sunlight and rain in order to confront calamities like the ones we’ve lived through with less risk and suffering. We are building a new geography, a shared map to easily re-find everything that has come from afar. We are interlocking our places with the earth so that they don’t leave us.
The Water that we come out of
The lithosphere is a rocky fractionated layer that constitutes the exterior of our planet. We all live on it, on large or small pieces, crashing against neighbors, brushing against them, pushing them, diving under them, or growing apart from them. The Caribbean Plate is one of the smallest. On this plate, and to our East is the arc of the Lesser Antilles. Its south border is the Northern coast of South America; its north border, Hispaniola and the Southeast part of Cuba. Its west frontier is the Central American Volcanic Arc, which includes its Pacific Coast.
When the plates of South America and North America started to separate, leaving behind the great continent that was Pangea, the Caribbean Plate, still without its islands, started to occupy the marine space that was opening between the two new continents. This was before the beautiful Caribbean islands came into existence. Geomorphologist José Molinelli, professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, explains in his manuscript “Geological Evolution of Puerto Rico,” that Puerto Rico, along with the other Greater Antilles, came from underwater volcanic activity that resulted from the convergence and subduction of the Farallon Plate in the Pacific with a portion of the North American Plate that is now the Caribbean Plate. 9
According to Molinelli, our islands were formed by 15 kilometers of stacked volcanic rocks. They were born in a place that was somewhat far, closer to Central America, in the space between the Yucatán Peninsula and present day Colombia. This is where volcanic activity in the Galapagos Islands created the oceanic plateau that crashed with them.10 This crash shifted the Antilles towards a new collision with the platform of the Bahamas. Because of this enormous compression, Cuba separated from the rest of the Antilles and joined the North American Plate. This gave way to the formation of many Caribbean mountains, including our Cordillera Central. What is now Sierra Bermeja between Cabo Rojo and Lajas emerged. It was part of the seabed that was thrusted upwards.11
I live a few miles from there and the mountain range is part of the landscape. I must have gone to the same faculty meetings as professor Johannes Schellekens a dozen times. He was the Dutch director of the Geology Department of the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez who discovered 195-million-year-old microscopic fossils in the flint of the Sierra Bermeja mountain range.12 As it turns out, Schellekens’s fossils were the prints of organisms that lived in the Pacific Ocean. A colleague must have told me about the discovery before I moved to the adjoining neighborhood known as Pedernales and much before I learned that flint (pedernal, in Spanish) is the reddish rock that forms in the depths of the ocean.
After Maria, these facts stopped being scientific curiosities and turned into a part of our new personal geography. I find it overwhelming to think of myself as the neighbor of a piece of land that came loose from the bottom of an immense ocean that is now on the other side of the world and which I’ve crossed only twice, when the climate crisis seemed to us less daunting. It surprises me to live in a world where I have such imprecise ideas about the water that gets to my house and the very antique marine origin of the land on which I live. I see myself interweaving these two stories in my imagination with a will that I have just discovered, that of rebuilding the geography of the place where I live as if it was my own. I know that only in my imagination and in the brief lapsus of my life, the water from that reservoir that was a symbol of progress for my parents’ generation will find that it has something in common with some submarine rocks from the Jurassic Period. It consoles me to know that no part of this new geography, deeply uneven and touchingly fortuitous, will remain eternally on this same map. I discover that they are only together because of my loving curiosity, even though I know that different forms of inertia will end up displacing them again.
Translated from Spanish by Gabriela Suau.
Thanks to Michy Marxuach and Marco Abarca for their reading and feedback of this text. They are the ones who have initiated the conversations and conceptualization of the relationship with water in Puerto Rico in the age of climate crisis, an issue that becomes more pressing every day.
- Lester Jiménez, “Preocupa la vida útil del Distrito de Riego del Valle de Lajas,” Primera Hora, June 6, 2019, https://www.primerahora.com/suroeste/noticias/puerto-rico/nota/preocupalavidautildeldistritoderiegodelvalledelajas-1346455/).
Ferdinand Quiñones. Recursos de Agua de Puerto Rico. www.recursosaguapuertorico.com/Distritos-Riego.html (July 23, 2019).
- Ariel Lugo, Social-Ecological-Technological Effects of Hurricane María on Puerto Rico: Planning for Resilience under Extreme Events. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019.
- DRNA: Programa de Manejo de la Zona Costanera (2017). Estado de la Costa de Puerto Rico. Ernesto L. Díaz and Karla M. Hevia, editors. http://drna.pr.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/EstadoDeLaCostaPR-2017.pdf
- Matt Kaneshiro et al., “Population of Puerto Rico not displaced by Hurricanes (for now): It’s the economy”. Statistics Institute. https://estadisticas.pr/en/datos-del-huracan-maria (July 23, 2019).
- La Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña. https://cooperativahidroelectrica.org/ (July 23, 2019).
- Antonio Gómez, “Formaliza desarrollo del consorcio energético de la montaña,” El Nuevo Día. February 28, 2019, https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/politica/nota/formalizadesarrollodelconsorcioenergeticodelamontana-2479573/).
- “Casi 15,000 abonados pueden venderle energía a la AEE,” Primera Hora. July 1, 2019, https://www.primerahora.com/noticias/gobierno-politica/nota/casi15000abonadospuedenvenderleenergiaalaaee-1350558/.
- José Molinelli, “Sinopsis de la Evolución Geológica de Puerto Rico”. Manuscript. Page 2.
- José Molinelli, “Evolución Tectónica de la Placa del Caribe”. Manuscript. Figure 7.
- Marisa Mulero, “Historia Geológica de Puerto Rico”. Manuscript. Page 4.
- Daniel Laó, “Sierra Bermeja: testimonio de historia boricua,” Ciencias Terrestres, Geología y Puerto Rico. https://geolpr.com/2014/03/07/sierra-bermeja-testimonio-de-historia-boricua/ (July 23, 2019).