Puerto Rico, potable water, and El Yunque


While much of the (sorely lacking) media attention to the ongoing disaster in Puerto Rico has been on the lack of electricity for more than half the people on the island, let us not forget that Puerto Rico still has a water crisis, contrary to disinformation being disseminated by FEMA.


Even for those people who do have power (or generators to provide it), most of the water flowing sporadically into their taps is not drinkable—at least not without boiling it first.  And water is key to the survival of Puerto Rico, its people and its ecosystem.

In the film Water from the Mountain – Agua de El Yunque” produced by Freshwaters Illustrated in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and cooperation from the Luquillo Experimental Forest, Professor Omar Perez-Reyes, ecologist and biologist from the University of Puerto Rico, says very simply that “water is life.”

El Yunque holds a key place in the spiritual history of the island of Borikén.

Here is some background on the Taino roots of El Yunque.

The indigenous Taino were the first humans to find themselves on the island, and El Yunque loomed large in both their mythology, and their day-to-day existences. There are differing opinions as to where the El Yunque (a peak in the middle of the rainforest) actually gets its name. The Taino are said to have referred to the peak as Yuke, which means “white lands” owing to the thick clouds of fog that encircle the peak. Others attribute its present-day name to the significant deity Yúcahu, who represented everything from agriculture, peace, tranquility, and fertility to the notion of “goodness” itself.” Like the Olympian gods of ancient Greece, he resided on a mountain, and that mountain was El Yunque, where it was said he did battle with the god of chaos and disorder

A visit to El Yunque has always been a breathtaking and spiritual experience.

Ecologist Grizelle González remembers family visits to the forest as a child. She grew up fascinated by the pre-columbian mythology surrounding El Yunque, and she’s not alone.

Many Puerto Ricans have an intimate connection to the forest not only for its native species and its ecosystems, but because of its geography. El Yunque sits on the island’s eastern edge, on the slopes of the Luquillo Mountains. The word “Yuke” means white lands, and it’s a reference to the mountain tops high in the sky and usually covered by clouds.

Many people think that the forest is the protector of the island because the area often takes the first hit and reduces the intensity of hurricanes when they sweep over the island.

“That’s why you see so many images of the forest and people loving it, because they see it as our protector,” she says.

It is one of the main tourist destinations on the island and post-Maria, it was closed.


The rain forest’s current status is tenuous.

Local Forest Service personnel, along with colleagues from around the US and locally hired temporary employees and contractors are working to clear debris and downed trees from roads, trails and water intakes.  As of December 2017, over 200 locally hired temporary employees and contractors have cleared over twenty miles of roads, nearly eight miles of trails and five water intakes. Engineers and technical specialists are beginning assessments of resources and infrastructure.

Forest roads have active landslides, trails are blocked by debris, and picnic areas and recreational facilities are damaged throughout the Forest.

Currently a portion of Rd 988, which passes over the Rio Mamayes, a Wild and Scenic River, and a segment of the Angelito trail are currently available.  There are no facilities and parking is extremely limited.

Like the people of Puerto Rico, the rain forest is resilient, and the recovery work is ongoing.

Ecologists, biologists, and teachers work together to share the gifts of El Yunque with a new generation of caretakers of the forest and the water it provides.

Follow the path of water from the rainforests of Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest to the Coastal communities that rely on fresh water… and discover one of the world’s most amazing water treatment (eco)systems.

When I think of shrimp (camarones), I salivate and think of all the ways I love to eat them. It was not until exploring the status of El Yunque that I learned of the role they play in filtering water.

These school children in the film are learning an important lesson for the future of not only their island, but the fate of the earth’s water.

Ecologist Dr. Omar Perez Reyes with schoolchildren in El Yunque rainforest in Puerto Rico

Hurricanes are not the only threat to El Yunque. More than 10 years ago, there was a warning in the article titled “Cloud over Puerto Rico rain forest; As development eats up the national park’s buffer zone, advocates warn of dire implications.”

The scent of flowering tropical plants fills the moist air amid a chorus of whistling birds and singing frogs. The only other sound for a mile in any direction is water crashing over a 100-foot falls. Despite 28,000 acres of lovely scenes such as this, the tropical rain forest that Puerto Rico’s prehistoric Taino Indians called “El Yunque” or “Land of the White Clouds” is struggling for survival. Thousands of surrounding acres of forests and green lands that insulate the only tropical rain forest in the USDA Forest Service from development are being cleared at a torrid pace.

“This has got to be stopped, or what we are going to have very soon is irreversible damage to this wonderful rain forest,” said Pablo Cruz, supervisor of the Caribbean National Forest.

“It would be a travesty for all Puerto Ricans and the millions of visitors who come here every year if development isn’t put in check soon,” Cruz added while assessing a large tract that a developer had begun clearing illegally.

El Yunque’s future is caught between powerful forces: conservationists on the one hand, and on the other those who view lands surrounding the rain forest as among the last parcels of open space for development. Puerto Rico’s government relies on construction jobs to ease a 12 percent unemployment rate on this section of the island. There are consequences to clearing these lands, beyond harm to hundreds of rare plants and wildlife in El Yunque. The rain forest, located 25 miles east of metropolitan San Juan, provides one-third of the island’s fresh drinking water.

Fast forward to this Nelson Denis article from 2016 titled “El Yunque and Vieques may be sold to private developers in Puerto Rico.”

El Yunque is a protected natural resource in Puerto Rico.

But the US Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, has warned that the island’s “protected natural resources,” including El Yunque and major sections of Vieques, will be “targeted for private development” by the US Financial Control Board (FCB).

If this is the case, then WHY did the White House urge the passage of PROMESA? This PROMESA is looking more like a Trojan Horse…

On April 1, 2016, during a brief island visit, Jewell wasted no time in blaming “Republican” FCB legislation – the PROMESA bill – for the looming turnover of public land to private developers, on a very major scale, in Puerto Rico.

Sadly, this was written during the Obama administration, so a bad situation is about to get worse. Now that we have the orange resident in the White House and Republican control of the House and Senate by Republicans, do you trust them to protect El Yunque—or any public lands?

Water is life.

We must come together to protect and preserve this natural resource and all it provides.

You can help by supporting The Center for Landscape Conservation.

We are partnering with the Sierra Club of Puerto Rico to deliver water, hot meals, water filters, solar lamps, clothing, and basic necessities to towns located on the east side of Puerto Rico and near El Yunque National Forest: Luquillo, Canóvanas, Ceiba, Fajardo, Juncos, Luquillo, Naguabo, Río Grande, Las Piedras and Humacao. Meals are prepared by local businesses and delivered in compostable containers.

Our focus is on the elderly, the sick, and the house-bound.

Once the emergency needs are met, we will work on the reforestation of El Yunque National Forest and assist in the recovery of local farms.  We plan to promote emergency response facilities in the regional communities that will provide immediate relief to areas that have limited access to supplies and services.  This initiative will help communities become more resilient in the event of more frequent and intense hurricanes.


USA News


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