The graffiti on the wall near the Martín Peña Channel, connecting the San Juan Bay to the San José Lagoon, reads “Drágalo ya!” – or, “Dredge it already!” Since the 1930s, when rural migrants began informally settling in the area, the channel has become increasingly blocked and polluted. Illegal dumping and a lack of sewage infrastructure have complicated matters further. Now, floods of contaminated water endanger residents’ health each time it rains due to how degraded the channel is.
My name is Estrella Santiago Perez, and I work for the Corporación del Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña, a public corporation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. We are working with eight underserved communities and our partners through EPA’s Urban Waters Program to revitalize the Martín Peña Channel. We have many goals, including implementing the Caño Martín Peña Ecosystem Restoration Project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the channel and reconnect the San José Lagoon with the San Juan Bay.
A sign near the channel, created by residents, reminds us that “El caño es tuyo. ¡Protégelo!” – “The channel is yours. Protect it!”
Once dredged, the channel will be wider, and many community members near the channel will need to relocate. ENLACE works with community members to acquire and remove structures on these properties and links residents to new housing in their communities. Since relocation takes time, communities decide on interim uses for vacant lots once the structures are removed. Many choose to create community gardens and grow fresh produce and herbs.
Working so closely with community members, we know that many fear the risk of displacement once the channel is dredged. That is why the communities, along with ENLACE, worked to create the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust. This nonprofit establishes the public land around the channel as collectively owned by the communities. The Trust ensures that the community will directly benefit from the environmental, social, and economic gains anticipated from the channel’s revitalization.
Judith Enck, EPA’s Administrator for Region 2, called the Martín Peña Channel “One of the most important dredging projects in the history of the nation.” With our partners and the residents working thoughtfully together in Caño Martín Peña, the channel will transform from a public health liability to a source of recreation, small business, and empowerment for the 26,000 people living in this watershed.
ENLACE’s youth and community education projects received funding from EPA’s Urban Waters Small Grants. Caño Martín Peña is part of EPA’s Making a Visible Difference In Communities initiative, which provides focused support to 50 communities seeking to become more sustainable. The channel is also a key area in the San Juan Bay Estuary Program and EPA’s Trash Free Waters initiative. ENLACE and the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust are currently finalists for a United Nations Habitat Award.
About the author: Estrella Santiago Pérez got her Bachelor of Science in Biology before pursuing her J.D. She first connected with Proyecto ENLACE in 2013 as a student volunteer and is now an Environmental Program Coordinator.