Nearly six months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still struggling with water quality issues. Mekela Panditharatne, a law fellow for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) specializing in safe drinking water and toxic chemicals, recently collaborated on a report for the NRDC and published an article in The Washington Post. These publications discussed the possibility that while Puerto Rican water service may be restored, it may not necessarily be up to snuff. WQP Associate Editor Lauren Estes spoke with Panditharatne about the state of water infrastructure in both the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
LAUREN ESTES: Tell me about your experience with water infrastructure in the U.S.
MEKELA PANDITHARATNE: My colleagues and I put out a report last year looking at drinking water violations across the U.S. analyzing official U.S. EPA data and found some pretty galling results. Around 77 million Americans were served by water systems that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act, and around 27 million Americans were served by water systems that violated health-based standards. This means that the water systems were detecting unsafe levels of contaminants or hadn’t been treated in accordance with federal standards.
Water infrastructure in the U.S. is pretty poor—it gets a D grade overall. It is in desperate need of major investment and improvement, particularly in vulnerable communities, in poorer communities, communities of color and rural areas.
ESTES: What do you see as key obstacles to improved U.S. water quality?
PANDITHARATNE: One of the key obstacles is simply the amount of funding. A lot of water systems do not necessarily have the money or resources to put into upgrading water treatment facilities or upgrading water-pumping stations. Many of these places are kind of poorer communities that are struggling with water contamination issues. Significant investment into drinking water infrastructure is necessary at the federal level in particular.
ESTES: From where does the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) draw its statistics that suggest 95% of Puerto Ricans have access to potable water?
PANDITHARATNE: FEMA draws its statistics from the government of Puerto Rico’s numbers on water service restoration, but those numbers are disputed. Associated Press ran a story in late December suggesting that the water service numbers weren’t exactly accurate.
Potable water has a very specific definition under federal law. It generally refers to compliance with federal, territorial and state safety standards. The numbers on water service restoration don’t necessarily align with the numbers of people that are receiving potable water in Puerto Rico at the moment.
ESTES: Can you elaborate on what the May 2017 NRDC report showed, and from where the information was collected?
PANDITHARATNE: We released this report in collaboration with local community partners in Puerto Rico analyzing data that was published by the EPA to show that 99.5% of Puerto Ricans were receiving water from public water systems in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015. So that’s virtually all residents on the island, and around 69.4% were receiving water that violated health-based standards. That is water that had unsafe levels of contaminants or that had not been treated in accordance with federal law.
ESTES: Moving forward, what actions do you think need to be taken to restore Puerto Rico’s water quality?
PANDITHARATNE: First and foremost, Hurricane Maria has worsened water quality in Puerto Rico. The government of Puerto Rico has said that 70% of its water infrastructure was affected by Hurricane Maria. This situation has been exacerbated. In the federal aid package that is being considered by the Senate right now we would want to see significant investment in Puerto Rico’s water infrastructure to fix, upgrade and maintain drinking water distribution systems, and make sure water is safe and in full compliance with health standards. The water distribution systems are incredibly old and leaky. Around half of the water is lost in distribution each year, so fixing some of those leaks would be essential to reduce Puerto Rico’s vulnerability in an extreme water event like a hurricane.