The San Juan Bay National Estuary Program (Estuario) and its partners commit to creating a watershed mitigation plan to guide eight municipalities in rebuilding a resilient watershed system. Through this commitment, Estuario will increase awareness around threats, hazards, and vulnerabilities, and build cross-sector partnerships for risk reduction, leading future watershed development towards smarter building decisions. To optimize impact, Estuario will identify long-term strategies for risk reduction that are aligned with community objectives, focus resources on the greatest risks, and communicate priorities to potential funders.
The plan will be created in three phases, recognizing the central role of communities in resource management and conservation, and the need for direct implementation. Estuario has employed this approach in drafting other plans, and have found significant success in implementation. In phase one, partners will conduct a diagnostic analysis that will look at how the watershed resources and communities were impacted during Maria. The findings will be used to develop specific actions for the plan. In phase two, Estuario will assemble at least five working groups focused on critical thematic areas identified in phase one. Forum participants will include experts and stakeholders in the thematic areas. They will review and approve the identified mitigation actions. In phase three, Estuario will design, edit, and print the plan, and submit to FEMA for approval.
Estuario will coordinate the phases and participation of partners. The Corporation for National Community Service will provide volunteers to work on participatory planning approaches. The University of Puerto Rico (UPR) will help certify information from the community and convene community leaders. UPR and Universidad Interameicana will provide interns. Estuario has identified the watershed’s critical stakeholders to serve as advisors in areas of interest; such as, public health, housing, education, and sustainability.
Estuario and its partners are currently working with three community centers that were isolated after Maria due to substantial flooding. Community centers have received support for important infrastructure improvements to support resiliency. The mitigation plan will help identify three additional community centers to transform, based on need.
Phase I (Diagnostic analysis January 2019 – June 2019):
Hire one assistant project manager and two project coordinators (hazard mitigation specialist and social ecological coordinator). The coordinators will conduct research to identify diagnostics identified by the Estuario on gray and green infrastructure; as well as through research from other entities in the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council (PRCCC), watershed municipalities, and state and federal emergency agencies.
Estuario will conduct a Risk and Vulnerability Assessment along with the top researchers in each area for coastal erosion and community involvement, among others that will provide an initial snapshot of what happened and local response.
Phase II (Working Group Forums July 2019 – August 2020):
Identify five thematic topics for work groups and critical stakeholders. Coordinate and convene work groups. The topics will be based on identified gaps and needs. Notes from the meetings will be used to generate the first drafts of the mitigation plan. All areas of research and community stakeholders will be essential to generate alternative strategies for disaster mitigation and transition to more resistant communities.
Phase III (Preparation of the Document: August 2020 - September 2021):
Compile information to make watershed level document acceptable by FEMA, EPA, State, and municipal government standards. Design, edit, and print reports and supporting documents.
Promote, distribute, and disseminate reports to the general public, the academia, agencies, and other entities.
Hurricane María was the worst hurricane to ever hit Puerto Rico, and the tenth-most intense Atlantic hurricane in history. The island suffered catastrophic damage: widespread flooding, damaged houses, roads, and infrastructure; severe coastal erosion, intense water quality deterioration, defoliation of over 90% of forests, a devastated electrical grid, and thousands of fatalities.
The San Juan Bay Estuary Watershed located in north coast of the island is 97 square miles and has approximately 600,000 residents living in eight municipalities. The watershed is a critical ecosystem that houses 33% of all remaining mangrove area within Puerto Rico, hundreds of different flora and fauna species, and coral reefs, wetlands, beaches, lagoons, forests and farmland.
The watershed is the site of Puerto Rico’s metropolitan area and is where main sea and air ports are located. The San Juan sea ports receive over one million tourists annually. More than 80% of all goods imported into Puerto Rico come through the San Juan Bay. Of the 28 nationally recognized estuary systems, the San Juan Bay Estuary Program is the only one recognized outside of the continental US and the only tropical system within the National Estuary Program. The watershed’s economic development has the potential to be an important engine to revitalize Puerto Rico’s economy through the tourism dollars and commerce.
However, communities within the watershed face degraded infrastructure, lack of adequate housing, and issues with flooding, trash collection, water quality and environmental degradation. According to 2017 Census data, 70% of the population in 56 census tracts in Puerto Rico are living below poverty, with 19 of those tracts located in the watershed, four of which have the highest poverty rate across the island.
Mitigation is key to breaking the cycle of disaster damage, reconstruction and repeated damage. The EPA recognizes that watershed planning which transcends municipal boundaries is the most logical framework for water management. Professional planners in Puerto Rico have recommended a watershed approach for planning and addressing the islands’ most pressing challenges.
Financial resources to implement the specific mitigation actions identified, implementing partners, technical support to provide guidance on compliance with local and federal regulations, transition methods for low lying communities, water control mechanisms, new and innovative storm and waste water management infrastructure, as well as media support, and global connections of similar approaches.
As the only tropical estuary within the EPA's National Estuaries Program is the only watershed to create a comprehensive mitigation plan that incorporates community inputs with a particular focus on water quality, Estuario can offer a replicable model to other jurisdictions.