Two of the major projects after Hurricane Maria, carried out by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), would involve periodic renourishment of San Juan’s famous beaches in Condado and Ocean Park with sand, along with a breakwater field. The federal agency also proposes to place stone revetment along a mile of coastline in Rincón.
The projects seek to protect, over a period of 50 years, the properties and infrastructure of San Juan, in the North, and Rincón, on the West coast, from the waves, floods and erosion caused by storms and rising sea levels. The period to send public questions and comments about the proposal opened November 20, 2020 and ends January 6, 2021, in the middle of the Christmas season and the pandemic.
The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) interviewed two oceanographers from the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez Campus (RUM, in Spanish) and an oceanographic geologist from the Río Piedras Campus, who predicted that the Rincón project would eliminate the possibility of recovering the municipality’s already eroded beaches and that will have an impact on the future of tourism there.
The USACE said the secondary goal of its proposal is to preserve natural, recreational and tourist spaces.
Time is short for public comment
Miguel Canals Silander, director of the RUM’s Center for Applied Ocean Science and Engineering; Aurelio Mercado, professor of Physical Oceanography at the same institution; and Maritza Barreto, director of the Puerto Rico Coastal Planning and Research Institute, warned that since this is a critical project for the coasts along the capital city of San Juan and Rincón, a surfing and tourism hotspot in the West coast, it should have received more promotion, analysis and public discussion. The CPI asked the USACE why the public comment period expires on January 6, 2021, taking into account the observations of the three investigators, the pandemic and the festive Christmas season.
A spokeswoman for the USACE said they held two public webinars, placed advertising in a general circulation media outlet, published a press release and made announcements on social media, in addition to sending letters to residents of the areas surrounding the zones to be affected.
The CPI asked the agency why it chose only San Juan and Rincón for these mitigation efforts, considering that other municipalities, such as Arecibo, show the most serious erosion patterns on the entire island, according to Barreto.
The USACE stated that the Flood Control Act of 1970, which makes federal funds available to carry out coastal interventions, requires applying these steps in areas where there is an economic justification. That is, where the value of the infrastructure to be protected is significant enough to outweigh the costs.
The experts interviewed ― as well as residents of Loíza, a predominantly Black community with 49.6% of its population living below the poverty level, where the USACE is also proposing a breakwater to deal with erosion ― criticized that the selection of coastal areas for mitigation projects is based only on economic aspects, without considering other human and social variables.
The San Juan and Rincón project will cost more than $203 million and will protect infrastructure losses valued at more than $245 million over a 50-year period.
A total of 62% of the initial construction costs and 48% of the costs of depositing sand to be done in phases in San Juan will be paid with federal funds. It remains to be seen how the government of Puerto Rico will get the rest of the money, while going through an economic crisis and the bankruptcy of public entities.
Damaris Delgado, deputy secretary for Conservation and Research at the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), co-sponsor of the project, said the agency is exploring, through Resident Commissioner in Washington, Jenniffer González, the possibility that the federal government can assign more funds to finance the project.
The $203 million “is a preliminary number,” Delgado said. “When we have the final figures we will have a better idea about the requirements that the government of Puerto Rico has to meet and then we can explore strategies that we don’t have now,” to get the money, she added.
Canals, Mercado and Barreto agreed that the plan chosen for Rincón is inadequate. “It’s a shame because they’re going to be replacing sandy beaches with rock,” said Barreto, who noted that the USACE conducted its study with information that is not the most up-to-date, since it dates back from 2016, and that its spatial analysis must be more precise.
“The Corps of Engineers is taking the easy route. When you put down rock, you lose the beach,” Mercado warned.
“Communities must push for a hybrid justification other than a mile-long stone revetment in Rincón. That intervention can save houses. But you kill the beach and tourism. And the houses you saved lose value,” Canals added.
The USACE estimates that, without an intervention, infrastructure damage in Rincón could total more than $34 million in a 50-year period.
“We’re open to getting recommendations from everybody,” said the Deputy Secretary of the DNER, who is temporarily in charge of the agency’s Coastal Zone Management Program. “If the concerns of these experts and the opinions they offer are the best, and we can defend them, they will be evaluated and presented to the Corps of Engineers so that they can be incorporated into their work.”
The USACE is still evaluating alternatives other than just stone revetment along the Rincón coast, such as renourishing the beach with sand, said Carolina Burnette, one of the USACE’s engineers working on the project planning.
“It’s not an easy decision. In Rincón, renourishing with sand is more expensive. Every so often we need to put sand. It is not like concrete. It’s gonna be gone. It has to be renourished more often than San Juan,” said Milan Mora, director of the USACE’s Jacksonville, Florida District Water Resources Division.
At the Ocean Park beach, interventions could protect private property valued at more than $132 million within 50 years, the USACE said. A breakwater field in combination with beach nourishment will be carried out there to protect more than a mile of beach. To minimize the potential environmental impact during the sand renourishment process, the USACE has chosen to deliver the material in trucks to the beach, rather than extracting it from the ocean, Burnette said.
Stone revetment will be done in Punta Piedrita, the coastal area next to the Ashford Hospital in Condado, and in the residential area of Punta Las Marías, as is planned for Rincón. But, unlike Rincón, these specific areas of the capital city of San Juan are not public beaches, so no recreational site would be affected. “There’s no sand left. What’s going to be done is to reinforce the shores, make them stronger, improve those areas,” Mercado said.
The oceanographer criticized the government of Puerto Rico for allowing for decades construction in the coastal zone and now turning to the federal government asking for funds to solve problems affecting the infrastructure that should not be there in the first place. “The cycle is very obvious. They give permission to a construction project and it’s built. Meanwhile, the waves attack the structure, because the sea level rises. The project seeks for permission to line with rocks. The government grants permission. If the mitigation effort is too expensive, they ask the federal government to intervene. The Corps of Engineers lines with rock and the beach is lost. It already happened at the Paseo La Marina in Aguadilla.”
The same study done by the USACE acknowledges that pattern that Mercado pointed out, noting that the government of Puerto Rico has not established a rigorous policy for coastal constructions with stricter restrictions.
“We can’t change the past and pretend that coastal construction didn’t happen. But there should be better planning in the future to avoid the situation that we have now,” said Burnette of USACE.
To submit questions and comments about the study, individuals should contact PuertoRicoCoastalStudy@usace.army.mil.
Individuals may also send a letter to the attention of Angela Dunn at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District, 701 San Marco Blvd, Jacksonville, Florida 32207-8175.
Comments to email@example.com