Worsening drought forces state of emergency in Puerto Rico

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The Governor of Puerto Rico declared a state of emergency on Monday, as an increasing drought is spreading throughout the United States in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

As of July 2, nearly 140,000 customers, including some in the capital of San Juan, will be without water for 24 hours every other day as part of strict rationing measures. Puerto Rico's public service companies urged people not to accumulate excess water, as it would worsen the situation.

Authorities called for everyone to wear masks and maintain social distance if they seek water from one of 23 water trucks installed across the island.

"We are asking people to use moderation," said Doriel Pagán, executive director of the Puerto Rico Water and Sewerage Authority, adding that she could not say how long rationing will last.

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Fernanda Ramos, a meteorologist with the United States National Weather Service in San Juan, said storms on the island will interrupt dry conditions on the island on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

A cloud of dust from the Sahara covers the view of the mountains in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on June 23.

A cloud of dust from the Sahara covers the view of the mountains in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on June 23.
(AP Photo / Carlos Giusti)

"However, we do not expect enough rain … to solve the problem we are seeing," he said.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, More than 26 percent of the island is experiencing severe drought and another 60 percent is under moderate drought.

Governor Wanda Vázquez said that 21 of the 78 municipalities are affected by severe drought, while another 29 by moderate drought. Another 12 municipalities face abnormally dry conditions. The worst of the drought is concentrated in the southern region of Puerto Rico, which continues to be affected by aftershocks after a magnitude 6.0 earthquake that struck in early January and caused millions of damages.

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An administrative order signed Monday prohibits certain activities in most municipalities, such as watering gardens during the day, filling pools, and using a hose or non-recycled water to wash cars. Those caught could be fined.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, More than 26 percent of Puerto Rico is experiencing a severe drought and another 60 percent is under a moderate drought.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, More than 26 percent of Puerto Rico is experiencing a severe drought and another 60 percent is under a moderate drought.
(AP Photo / Carlos Giusti)

Vazquez's announcement comes amid criticism that his administration has not dredged reservoirs, which would remove sediment and prevent excessive water loss. Pagán said the utility company spoke to the Federal Emergency Management Agency since Hurricane Maria about a $ 300 million dredging investment. She blamed the long process on the number of studies necessary.

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The next water rationing measures will affect customers connected to the Carraízo reservoir, one of 11 that the government of Puerto Rico operates. Pagán said the reservoir was last dredged in the late 1990s. Authorities have already taken other measures, including activating water wells and transferring more than 30,000 clients from Carraízo to another reservoir.

The company is restructuring a portion of its multi-billion dollar debt and suspended all capital improvement projects, including dredging, as a result of its fiscal problems. Natalie Jaresko, executive director of a federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico's finances amid a deep economic crisis, said Monday that up to 60 percent of water is wasted, lost, or stolen.

An upcoming project to install meters at the company's production facilities is expected to improve the situation, and the board approved a fiscal plan for the utility company that calls for dredging projects. However, the company has the last word on whether it will carry out those projects and what type of financing it would use.

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Puerto Rico last experienced a punishing drought five years ago that affected 2.5 million people and led to severe water rationing measures. During that time, some 400,000 utility customers received water every other day alone.

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