UTUADO, PUERTO RICO — Whenever it rains, Manuel López Bonilla, 75, follows the same routine: He puts on his muddy rain boots and walks along a dirt path up the hill across the street from his home.
He uses a machete to clear the weeds along the hour-and-a half hike to get to his aljibe, a rustic water storage system comprised of a concrete tub and PVC pipes. He empties out the box, cleans it with a broom and bleach, then flushes it and lets it fill up with spring water.
His aljibe is the main source of potable water for him and his neighbors, whose homes are scattered through the side of the mountain in the Consejo neighborhood.
“I provide water to so many people. What’s the point of implementing a system where I have to pay for the water that I have been using since I was born? We have never had a problem,” he said.
An estimated 140,000 residents — over 4 percent of Puerto Rico’s population — consume spring water directly from wells, springs and streams, many without any filtration or testing to ensure its safety.
About this series
Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, devastating the island’s infrastructure and leaving many without power or access to vital resources. The storm’s death toll was estimated at nearly 3,000, while thousands more have left the island, including many who relocated to Central Florida. The Orlando Sentinel is marking the passage of one year since the storm with a three-part series on key issues still affecting communities on the island.
Even after Hurricane Maria struck one year ago, those families never stopped relying on a local spring.
They continued to use it when natural drinking water in other parts of the island was suspected of infecting dozens with severe cases of leptospirosis. They used it when volunteers handed out filters, warning residents of the potentially lethal dangers of drinking from natural sources. They even used it when septic tanks frequently overflowed.
Experts and community groups fear that when the next catastrophic storm hits, the desperation caused by an island-wide emergency could expose countless Puerto Ricans to water sources that are, at best, untested — and at risk of contamination.
It’s unclear how many people were sickened by waterborne illnesses after Maria, but reports have tied dozens of deaths to leptospirosis, one dangerous pathogen.
But residents in Consejo defend their water source, arguing that their method was the only reliable lifeline when, after Maria, potable water became scarce. Families traveled to communities like Consejo to collect water that dripped through skinny white PVC pipes jutting from the mountain along the roadsides.
‘I don’t drink that water’
Residents in Consejo and neighboring Viví Arriba are mostly elderly and low-income. Most live off social security checks, the fruit of decades of work in the agricultural and mining industries. About 150 families in this region use spring water as their main drinkable source.
López Bonilla’s concrete box, which serves seven families, is connected to a spring by 2,500 feet of pipes. Another 24 tanks operated by neighbors serve the rest of the community. The only tool keeping rats and squirrels from infecting most tanks is a thin net. López Bonilla keeps spare tubes under his house, which he used to replace the broken PVC pipes Hurricane Maria left behind.
The aljibe system dates back centuries, to when the Spaniards first colonized Puerto Rico.
Miguel Morales, a skinny 65-year-old with an earnest disposition and a mustache that reveals a modest smile, is an influential leader here. He knows the mile marker that signals the end and beginning of the aljibe communities. He knows where residents go to get their water and how they store it.
The area’s steep, curved roads were treacherous after the storm, but Morales, president of Viví Arriba’s Community Action Center, said the government slowly managed to deliver cases of water. Trucks also arrived carrying potable water for the community to fill up containers.
But eventually, the water truck the federal government had provided for Consejo was sent away. Residents didn’t deem it necessary, Morales said,preferring their aljibes even to readily available bottled water.
“I would give them a case of water or two, and they would say, ‘No Miguel, no water for me. I don’t drink that water.’ … They would take the food and stuff, but they wouldn’t take the water,” he said.
Neftalí Oquendo Rivera, 70, has lived in Consejo all his life, drinking water from the aljibes, the only source he trusts.
“Even if we were linked to the Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority, I would keep using my water,” he said. “You want to be completely independent.”
‘Operating off the rails’
Over the years, technologies have been implemented on the island to monitor the quality of the water Puerto Ricans drink, but in these neighborhoods, time somehow stopped.
The Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority serves most of the island with about 100 water filtration plants. But an estimated 170 neighborhoods — which includes about 140,000 families — use water from wells, springs and streams, according to Environmental Protection Agency data provided by water engineer Ferdinand Quiñones.
These community systems are called Non-PRASA, and they’re loosely supervised by the Puerto Rico Department of Health. They are operated and maintained by a community and must send samples of their water to be tested by the Health Department officials on the island on a monthly or trimester basis.
Javier Torres, director of the Health Department’s Drinkable Water Division, said he could not vouch for the quality of water in these communities, but said post-Maria tests have appeared “normal.”
Health Department spokesman Eric Perlloni said some Non-PRASA communities are not supervised at all because government oversight is “discretionary” and up to the community.
Quiñones believes these communities aren’t sufficiently regulated. Even at some of the regulated Non-PRASA sites, he said, tests are done with field kits that don’t necessarily meet EPA analytical standards.
“Here you have 150,000 people without a structured oversight of their water quality. … They’re operating off the rails. They’re lucky that the source of water is good, but that supervision that’s lacking is always necessary,” said Quiñones.
López Bonilla is among an even smaller percentage of residents who don’t use any chemicals at all to treat or test the water they consume from independent tanks connected to springs.
Some neighbors, like Oquendo Rivera, sporadically send the water for laboratory tests, but the community as a whole isn’t organized to monitor the quality of their water.
They trust in nature as a filter.
In the days after a hurricane, that belief could create a dangerous scenario, given the risk of contamination from bacteria and organic materials from nearby farms, said Quiñones, who has researched water quality in Puerto Rico for 30 years.
The EPA for years has opted to work with the Non-PRASA communities to enhance the quality of the drinkable water they consume, rather than trying to persuade them to change to a more modern system, Quiñones said.
“What are you going to do? You can’t leave these people without water,” he said.
Morales agrees. Even if residents found the resources to send their water to a lab, there are few alternatives for this inland mountain community.
“If the water turns out to be dangerous, that it has coliform and bacteria, they’re going to have to keep drinking it, because where will they get their water from?” he said. “… Many are afraid that someone will show up, and they think, ‘They want to
‘Everybody was worried’
Inside a tiny office-turned-water-lab in the western coastal town of Rincón, Steve Tamar hunches his lanky body over beach water samples he gathered the day before for testing.
Tamar, director at the Rincón chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, has been testing beach water quality for years. But after Hurricane Maria, his organization’s priorities changed. People in Rincón drank, bathed and washed clothes in one main creek called Ojo de Aguanear the town’s main square.
As word spread, residents from nearby towns would drop in and fill huge tanks of water from Ojo de Agua. There was a system designating different parts of the creek for different uses — the word “showering” with an arrow pointing downstream is still scrawled on the wall by the water.
But soon enough, as the distribution of bottled water stalled and many spent weeks without running water, residents questioned if the creek would wind up making them sick.
“Everybody was worried,” Tamar recalled. “Even the state police, a captain comes over and says, ‘I’m really worried about my guys, they’re going to wells and springs too and we can’t afford to have them getting sick.’”
Tamar police offered to drive him to neighboring springs and creeks so he could test the water and tell them if it was safe to drink. Many had never been tested before, he said.
Surfrider volunteers went to towns in Utuado, near Consejo, and Maricao, which is just south of Rincón, to test for enterococcus bacteria and E. Coli, which can cause digestive and intestinal problems.
“We had to take what was our standard water testing program and modify it heavily towards other different types of parameters you would look for for potentially potable water,” Tamar said. “It was approaching a public health crisis.”
This involved getting new equipment and teaching residents — including children — how to test water for common bacteria.
Tamar’s team tested at least four sites in Utuado between December and January. All tested positive for bacteria, ranging from mild to severe and undrinkable.
But he said his tests were not sophisticated enough to detect more serious contagions, like the one that causes leptospirosis.
And because the symptoms of E. Coli or enterococcus are similar to those of a flu or a stomach bug, it was difficult to keep track of how many people got sick from drinking this water.
“Directly, we didn’t know. No one was keeping track of that sort of stuff,” Tamar said.
Locals resist change
In parts of Utuado, Tamar said it was a challenge to get residents to understand the risks of drinking water from springs — even though most of the natural sources, in his view, were not reliable enough to use for drinking water.
“The typical response we got from the people living in the barrio was, ‘Well hey, I don’t need a water filter, I’ve been drinking the water for all my life! I’m still alive. I’m good,’” Tamar said.
For longtime residents, he said, this is true: Their systems are likely accustomed to the water’s bacteria. But outsiders, like those who ventured into the mountains after Maria damaged the island’s utilities, are not as adapted.
Even those from nearby communities could suffer from being exposed to new microorganisms from an unfamiliar water source. Ultimately, there’s not enough data to know whether the water that hundreds depended on after the hurricane was safe or not, Tamar said.