Challenges and Opportunities in San Juan Bay

By Nancy Stoner

Last week, I visited the San Juan Bay National Estuary Program office in Puerto Rico and took a tour of the estuary with the program’s director, Dr. Javier Laureano. San Juan Bay was the first tropical island estuary to become part of the National Estuary Program and, it contains coral communities, seagrass beds and mangrove forests – all habitats designated critical areas. The San Juan Bay program also faces some significant environmental challenges, but Dr. Laureano and his team are making tremendous progress through their partnerships with commonwealth and municipal officials, the local water and wastewater utilities, and dedicated community groups.
We started the day with a boat tour of the waterways that connect to San Juan Bay. It’s an oasis in the Puerto Rico’s largest urban center with almost no development and lots of wildlife, but with significant contamination issues from sewage and stormwater. The National Estuary Program has requested $1.2 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to track all of the sources of untreated sewage into the waterway. We also saw a number of new eco-tourism businesses that the National Estuary Program has helped get off the ground.

A hallmark of this program is its focus on developing economic opportunities for many of the communities located within the National Estuary Program study area because of the poverty they face. In this case, many of the local neighborhoods lack sewage treatment and have clogged stormwater drains as well, so the storms flood the streets, homes and even schools with sewage-laden water.

The trash in the Martin Pena Channel that flows into San Juan Bay and is so deep that you can walk across the former stream at many points. It is a health hazard that EPA is working in partnership with many, including effective community leaders, to address, but it’s a big job and presents a significant financial challenge for this impoverished community.

I also joined EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck and Assistant Administrator Craig Hooks for a meeting and walking tour with representatives of community groups, a visit to a community garden where university students tutor children in the neighborhood and a trip to eroded coastal areas where the National Estuary Program is planting mangrove trees to stabilize and protect the coastline. These projects are a few examples of the great work underway to restore and protect one of the country’s most unique ecosystems in the United States.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water

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