Chunks of cement, boulders, construction waste, and some debris separate the coastal bluff in the Barrio Obrero community of Arecibo from the ocean-view car wash where Christian works. The man, who has lived in this community all his life, said how the neighbors have tried to find options to tackle the accelerated coastal erosion rate in recent years. The result has been a makeshift landfill made with discarded construction materials, as if to reclaim land from the sea. With seeming resignation, he says that municipal politicians rarely stop by the area, and that these sporadic visits almost always happen during electoral campaigns.
“Because this is a small neighborhood, almost no one cares,” he tells the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish), while looking for the liquid to shine car tires.
In the past, the Arecibo municipal government said there were no resources to implement a mitigation plan in this coastal area. Former Mayor Carlos Molina said the only solution for residents in vulnerable zones was to find another house somewhere else.
Given the lack of alternatives, the residents of Barrio Obrero throw objects such as brick fragments, pipes and pieces of tile onto the eroded slope with the hope of forming a breakwater that protects their properties for a while.
“We toss in rocks and some rubble, but as long as it’s not garbage,” Christian said when discussing how the people in his neighborhood struggle to try to protect themselves from erosion and from the episodes of strong tides that threaten the existence of their residences of this coastal community in Arecibo.
It was not until March 8 that, with the arrival of a new administration in Arecibo, an ordinance was signed to create the town’s first Office of Planning and Territorial Management. It’s current and first director, Leslie Orama, confirmed the information to the CPI, saying that in her newly created office they will work on strategies to manage the coastal erosion problem in Barrio Obrero and in nearby communities.
Like other areas west of the Río Grande de Arecibo, the Barrio Obrero community has faced the erosion of its coastal slope, according to “The study of the beaches of Puerto Rico Post-María” research study. One of the main researchers on the project, Dr. Maritza Barreto, describes the problem in some of these areas of Arecibo as one of coastal bluff erosion. It is an erosion process that is just starting to be examined in Puerto Rico, and which is different from beach erosion and wearing away of other areas of the flat coast.
“These are high areas, but they are coasts with vulnerable, sedimentary material. If you have that exposed to a coast with regular waves, with hurricanes that are becoming increasingly [stronger] due to the effect of climate change, you will get a vulnerable coast. Added to that is coastal mismanagement in the past, plus the rise in sea level, so you have the perfect equation to speed it up,” Barreto explained to the CPI.
The case of Arecibo, on the island’s northern coast, was one that marine geologist and her work team from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) noticed while doing field work to learn how much Puerto Rico’s beaches had changed after Hurricane Maria. Although the research was not intended to study the phenomenon of coastal bluff erosion, it was inevitable to identify the problem.
According to the scientist, coastal bluff erosion is more difficult to identify through aerial photos, and her research in Puerto Rico has been more limited when compared to flat coast erosion.
El Cocal beach in the town of Yabucoa, in southeastern Puerto Rico, presents another significant case of coastal bluff erosion, the second part of the study reveals. When visiting Yabucoa, the CPI found that municipal officials said they were aware of the problem and the danger to properties in high areas but admitted that specific mitigation strategies for coastal bluff erosion have not been implemented.
“We don’t have much information about the elevated coast,” Luis Rivera, special assistant to the mayor of Yabucoa, told the CPI, who added that in addition to El Cocal, the area of El Negro beach also shows a case of coastal bluff erosion.
From El Cocal beach dozens of properties that are part of El Cocal Country & Beach Club can be seen on the slope, which includes units available for rent through the Airbnb platform. A visit to the area reveals how vulnerable the slope that divides this complex from the popular beach has become.
The sturdy natural wall that once separated the residential complex from the beach has narrowed as a result of erosion and landslides, further undermining the roots of the trees and palms trees there. When Rivera was asked about what measures the municipality has taken to address the dangers faced by those who stay in these housing and rental units, the official said little has been done, since it is a “private property.”
“El Cocal [Country & Beach Club] is a plot of land where several people bought and got titles, but it’s a plot of land that hasn’t been segregated. The roads aren’t public. We can see the effects of erosion from the public area [of the beach], but if it affects any type of property, we would have to go in there at the request [of the residents],” Rivera explained.
As in El Cocal in Yabucoa, the area adjacent to Kikita Beach and the Ojo del Buey reserve in the Mameyal neighborhood of the northern municipality of Dorado, also face a coastal bluff erosion problem that includes the area where there are properties for rent through Airbnb. Although his reasons are different from those outlined by Yabucoa municipal officials, the mayor of Dorado has not gotten involved with managing and mitigating the coastal bluff erosion that is happening in his town. He held the central government accountable.
“This is really the responsibility of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER). Unfortunately, [the agency] has refused to take any responsibility. For example, there’s an area that could affect residences in the future, the area of Costa Dorada. There were funds that we, the community and the Municipality, have been trying to qualify for to solve the problem and we weren’t able to get Department [of Natural and Environmental Resources] to help at this time,” Dorado Mayor Carlos Lopez told the CPI.
Regarding the case of Mameyal and the area of the El Ojo del Buey reserve, where there are areas of coastal bluff erosion, the mayor of Dorado said that, as a mitigation measure, they are considering installing gabions, which is a type of metal mesh rectangular box filled with rocks used as a barrier. He also said he will request federal funds to be able to conduct ocean studies to design a protective structure, although he did not explain why he waited until now to do this.
The CPI contacted the DRNA for a reaction to the mayor’s statements, but there was no response.
While it is being decided whether the responsibility of addressing coastal bluff erosion falls on the town of Dorado or the DRNA, the Atlantic Ocean continues reclaiming its space. The episodes of strong swells caused by cyclones or cold fronts along Puerto Rico’s northern region push the ocean into the Mameyal’s narrow streets. Business and apartment owners in elevated areas near Kikita Beach also toss rocks at the shoreline area to try to mitigate erosion. But those are informal practices, which the Mayor himself claims to be unaware of at times, although he justifies them.
“We personally [in the Municipality] didn’t know about this. I found out from your information, but the truth is that in the permit process that a private [company] — or even in this case, the municipal government — wants to follow, it’s inaccessible in terms of the agencies. Before, it was bureaucratic and uphill. Now with the problem of COVID, that there isn’t the accessibility that there was before in terms of doing certain transactions in person, now it’s very uphill. Citizens, looking to safeguard their property, try to mitigate [the problem] that way. Ultimately, if they were to do it like they have to, it would be no different to how they’re going about it. I guess that’s what happened there,” said Lopez, when approached about the incident revealed in a video in which people on their own tossed large stones from the back of a property in the area near the beach in Kikita.
Although these practices respond to people in fear of losing their business or property, their consequences are not always favorable since it represents a type of informal mitigation that does not respond to the coastal studies required in these processes.
“Putting a large rock, hard material or walls, without knowing its effect, what’s it going to do? It will stop it immediately, it will fix the coastline, but it’s temporary. Second, it can cause lateral erosion. That’s why mitigation decisions cannot be made without following the processes. For you to mitigate, you have to ask for permits. I can understand that people get anxious, but what people might think of as an option may be the worst medicine,” Barreto warned.
“The mitigation strategies have to be based on the behavior of the coast. It has to be done in a comprehensive way, so that what I do in front of my plot, doesn’t affect the others. It has to go along with community participation. It has to be an analysis among the community, the municipality and the State. They cannot be independent decisions,” said the also professor at the Graduate School of Planning of the UPR’s Río Piedras Campus.
Since its inception in 2015, residents of different communities in the capital city voiced their opposition to the way in which the controversial project of the Paseo Lineal in Puerta de Tierra located in San Juan was done. They requested greater citizen participation and advocated for better planning strategies that would guarantee the protection of the coast and its resources. A CPI investigation published in 2016 revealed the poor credentials of the companies contracted to build the Paseo.
With the passing of time, several reports and videos have documented the progressive deterioration and the Paseo’s existing critical condition. One of its sections was closed to the public due to the vulnerability of the slope on which the Paseo’s structure stands.
The unsafe condition of this recreational area that cost $32 million in public funds forced the House of Representatives’ Commission for the Development and Supervision of Public Funds of the Capital City, Aguas Buenas, Bayamón, Cataño and Guaynabo to launch an investigation into the controversial project in May. In the public hearings, it was revealed that it was not clear whether the Municipality of San Juan or the Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTOP, in Spanish) was the entity that should assume the main control over the Paseo. Meanwhile, the Infrastructure Financing Authority has stated on several occasions that its responsibility for the project ended once construction was completed.
While the Municipality of San Juan and government agencies point fingers at each other without assuming responsibility, the erosion of the coastal bluff that supports the Paseo continues to gain ground, putting the people who pass through the area on a daily basis at risk. Some open sections of the Paseo are supported by ground that is increasingly prone to landslide events, according to Félix Rivera, chairman of the College of Engineers and Surveyors of Puerto Rico’s Earthquake Commission, during one of the hearings.
“The issue there [in Puerta de Tierra] is that the sea is very close to that sloping terrain. Whenever that happens, there’s a risk of landslides, and more so in this case, where it’s about 30 feet high between where the street is and the square, and down to the sand,” Rivera explained to the CPI.
“Soil studies and recommendations were made to put some meshes that didn’t work. There should be a good inspector, someone to review what’s going to be done. That slope is almost 90 degrees. It is completely steep and that’s a very serious problem,” added the engineer, who also warned that any cyclonic event that occurs this year could accelerate the landslides, and therefore, prompt the shutdown of more sections of the Paseo.
The firm GeoCim was contracted in April 2015 to carry out the geotechnical study for the Paseo Lineal in Puerta de Tierra, which is supposed to have included measures aimed at controlling coastal erosion. The CPI contacted the company, but its executives were not available.
While both types of beach erosion happen in a coastal context, their characteristics and processes of change are different. This is why mitigation and adaptation strategies and the development of public policy have to be specific. According to people who study the coasts, including Dr. Barreto, boosting research that contributes to the understanding of coastal bluff erosion and the main reasons why it happens is necessary.
Many of these coastal slopes in Puerto Rico feature a combination of different types of sedimentary rock. And each combination poses a different density, Geomorphologist Banery Mujica explained to the CPI, when addressing one of the reasons for the vulnerability in areas where there are elevated coasts in Puerto Rico.
“In Arecibo’s case, the material comes mostly from the mountainous central region. Especially along Puerto Rico’s northern area, there’s a combination of sedimentary material that, in turn, includes different types of sedimentary material,” said the scientist, speaking of the convergence of rocks such as limestone and that of volcanic origin in some parts of the north of the island.
In Puerta de Tierra, Mujica said “almost all of this material, especially in the northern part of the Capitol [building], comes from the San Lorenzo Batholith. This material comes from the Rio Grande de Loíza, which was pulled by the basins and the marine currents, which were collecting all this material in the north of Puerto Rico.”
A tour of the area under the Paseo Lineal in Puerta de Tierra not only shows the fragility of the slope, but also allows the identification of the presence of two types of sediments that converge in this coastal formation. “In the lower part it’s more limestone and in the upper part it’s more sedimentary material of igneous origin,” said the also professor of the Department of Geography of the UPR’s Río Piedras Campus.
The problem of accelerated erosion in Puerto Rico must be addressed by combining several scientific disciplines. Mujica recommends that for construction projects in coastal areas, soil studies carried out by geologists are not the only reference for decision-making, but that they must integrate geomorphological analysis, something with which renowned Geomorphologists Maritza Barreto and José Molinelli agree.
“If you strictly do a geological study, it will tell you that, for example, all that coast of San Juan is a combination. It’s exactly the same mix that you will see in Vega Alta and Vega Baja. But in geomorphological terms, it’s completely different, since the Puerta de Tierra coast in San Juan is a bluff. Because it’s geomorphologically different, erosion behaves differently,” Mujica noted.
Due to its physical geography, the study of coastal erosion in Puerto Rico should not only take into consideration the current climate crisis and the rise in sea levels, but also aspects such as the geomorphological processes that happen in the island’s interior and the problem of mishandling of rivers.
Rafael R. Díaz Torres is a member of Report for America