Estuario Comprehensive Watershed-Based Mitigation Plan

Commitment by The Corporation for The Conservation of The San Juan Bay Estuary

In 2019, The San Juan Bay National Estuary Program (Estuario) and its partners committed to create a watershed mitigation plan to guide eight municipalities in rebuilding a resilient watershed system by analyzing its current state and identifying long-term strategies for risk reduction that are aligned with community objectives and funding opportunities. Home to 600,000 residents, the watershed runs 97 square miles and is made up of wetlands, beaches, lagoons, forests and farmland. It covers Puerto Rico’s metropolitan area and main sea and air ports, making it integral to the island’s economy. Currently, the area faces weakened infrastructure and housing, and issues with flooding, trash collection, water quality, and environmental degradation. Through this commitment, Estuario will convene five working groups made up of stakeholders and experts that will analyze the watershed area and provide specific mitigation steps. Estuario aims to increase awareness around threats, hazards, and vulnerabilities, and build cross-sector partnerships for risk reduction, leading future watershed development towards smarter building decisions.



Estuario Comprehensive Watershed-Based Mitigation Plan



Est. Duration

1 Year

Estimated Total Value



Latin America & Caribbean



Commitment by

The Corporation for The Conservation of The San Juan Bay Estuary

Partner(s) of the Commitment Maker(s)

United States Corps of Engineers; University of Puerto Rico; Corporation for National and Community Service; Municipality of San Juan; Municipality of Carolina; Municipality of Cataño; Municipality of Loíza; Municipality of Guaynabo; Planning Board of Puerto Rico; Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction, and Resilience; Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority (PRASA); United States Environmental Protection Agency; Puerto Rico Climate Change Council; Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources

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.

Partnership Opportunities

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.

Progress Reports

December 2019

The Estuario has completed the first phase of the watershed mitigation plan by conducting an extensive diagnostic assessment with top local researchers, scientists, and members of the community. The Vulnerability Assessment Report, completed in December 2019, evaluated the current state of the watershed and how its resources and communities were impacted by hurricane Maria. Its findings will be used to assemble five working groups in crucial areas to work towards long-term strategies for risk reduction in eight municipalities. As part of the first phase, the Estuario has hired an assistant project manager to help with coordination related to Mitigation Planning funds. In addition, the Estuario has begun the process of hiring two other project coordinators (hazard mitigation specialist and social ecological coordinator) and is expected to make a selection within the first trimester of 2020. The hiring process is taking longer than anticipated due to the temporary nature and high demand for highly qualified individuals with very specific skill sets. The Estuario has currently received commitment from three municipalities (Cataño, Loíza and Toa Baja) to formally incorporate the Estuario’s mitigation plan into their municipal mitigation plan efforts. In addition, the Estuario has continued to focus on reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience in communities by providing support for capacity building and important infrastructure improvements with five Community Resilience Hubs, which have been established in Caimito and Old San Juan (San Juan), Puente Blanco (Cataño), Goyco (San Juan) and Loíza Pueblo (Loíza). This increases the number of existing community resilience hubs from three to five within the watershed. The Estuario is currently in the process of formalizing an agreement with the community in Cantera (Caño Martin Peña) to form another resiliency hub in this critical area, which is expected to initiate by the end of 2019.

In the first half of 2019, the Estuario organized two Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification workshops to help community members become better prepared during a disaster, in addition to a First Aid and Alarm Signs in Children workshop to help 20 teachers become better equipped to handle emergency situations with their students. Two communities received First Aid and CPR/AED courses, facilitated by the American Red Cross Puerto Rico Chapter and organized by the Estuario, which aimed to teach participants to recognize and manage first aid emergencies. A total of 27 community residents received a First Aid/Pediatric/CPR/AED certificate for adults. These workshops impacted approximately 36 residents in three communities. The Water Quality Community Network empowers watershed residents to take actions that will result in the restoration and protection of their bodies of water. In January, the Estuario held a Water Quality Monitoring workshop for the network, where the group participated in sampling water from the Quebrada Buena Vista at the community of Villa Nevarez. The Estuario also took on the evaluation and emptying of 104 septic tanks in the Municipality of Cataño, which included outreach efforts, the assessment of 149 properties and their septic systems, cleanups, education and a community survey. In the Puente Blanco Resilience Hub, a solar energy system was installed along with an industrial kitchen stove and supplies, enabling them to provide meals and power to the community in case of a disaster. When Hurricane Dorian threatened Puerto Rico in August 2019, the Estuario activated its emergency protocols and executed several activities identified for community resilience. Some of these activities included an emergency backpack workshop that was given in person and distributed over video, hurricane preparation workshops, and a workshop on how to operate the desalination plant in case potable water became scarce again. Dorian did not make landfall in PR, but the response by Estuario Resilience Hubs is a testament to the effectiveness of a long-term presence in each community. Estuario has formalized its community work by expanding the Resilient Hubs' reach through additional campaigns such as community health fairs, artists-in-residence initiatives, oil recycling, and solid waste management and renewable energy workshops. Dorian's threat to PR and its direct impact on Barbados underscores the urgency of finalizing the Mitigation Plan commitment in order to finance the infrastructure needed to manage future threats.