The Rio Loco/ Guánica Bay Watershed is located in the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico, approximately 20 miles west of the city of Ponce. Due to human alteration, the watershed area was increased by 50% to approximately 151 square miles. The Río Loco/Guánica Bay Watershed includes the urbanized areas of Yauco, a portion of the Lajas Valley agricultural region, and the upper watershed where coffee farming and subsistence agriculture is practiced on steep often highly erodible slopes. The watershed is one of the major riverine discharge points on the southwest coast. Historically, the area was associated with some of the most extensive and healthy reef complexes in Puerto Rico. Coral reefs have experienced an unprecedented decline over the past 30-40 years in the Caribbean by some estimates have lost greater than 50% of live coral and over 90% of sensitive and federally listed Acropora palmata (elkhorn) and Acropora cervicornus (staghorn) species. Meanwhile studies by scientists in Puerto Rico have suggested that important nutrient and sediment contaminants have increased by 5-10 times pre-colonial levels and several times in the last 40-50 years.
Historically urbanization, particularly after 1950, has two primary effects on the near shore coastal system; an increase in population and an increase in impervious cover and generation of stormwater. The increases in impervious cover result in increases in loading of nutrients, bacteria, sediments, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, heavy metals and other pollutants associated with automobiles. The increase in population also results in additional sewage being generated and discharged to the near shore coastal environment.
Discharge from sewage and septic systems are key sources of contamination in the watershed particularly along the coast. This is especially true in Guánica where much of the infrastructure in the town was built in the early 1900s and both sewer and stormwater conveyed in earthen channels and PVC pipes – and the system is inherently leaky often clogged and almost impossible to track the sources of pollutants through the aging infrastructure. This has resulted in a system where stormwater, wash water and sewage all mix carrying a cocktail of contaminants toward Guánica Bay where they are collected in a large open vault before being pumped several times a day into Guánica Bay.
In response to these environmental challenges in 2008 the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources through the NOAA Coral Reef Management Fellow in Puerto Rico and in partnership with the Center for Watershed Protection, created Guanica’s first Watershed Management Plan. The primary purpose of this plan was to outline a comprehensive set of actions and an overall management strategy for improving and protecting the Guánica Bay watershed from nonpoint sources of pollution derived from land use alterations, and residential, commercial and agricultural uses. This plan was updated in 2014 by Protectores de Cuencas and our partners.
GUÁNICA LAGOON RESTORATION PROJECT
Considering its ministerial duty, constitutional mandate and responsibilities established by special laws, the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), in collaboration with federal agencies, has analyzed the site and resources of the Guánica Lagoon’s footprint (an area classified as fresh water wetland and shallow coastal lagoon), as well as the adjacent land immediately west of the Lagoon footprint (known as El Anegado – a herbaceous freshwater swamp). This analysis was conducted with the idea of developing a restoration project that is compatible with existing agricultural activities in the Valley and with new activities that can stimulate the regional economy.
The DNER, Protectores de Cuencas and the surrounding communities wish to restore the Guánica Lagoon and highlight its value as a wildlife refuge and ecological resource. According to a feasibility study for the restoration of the historic Guánica Lagoon, the scenario that reconnects the historic Rio Loco watershed and the floodplain with the Guánica Lagoon has the highest benefit to improve the Guánica Bay habitat and water quality. Therefore, this restoration is critical for the future improvement of coral reef ecosystems of Guánica and southwest Puerto Rico.