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Puerto Rico’s ‘Superaqueduct’ stirs debate over governor’s powers

June 17, 1997

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ It’s supposed to slake San Juan’s thirst for the next 50 years: a pipeline delivering millions of gallons of fresh water from a river in central Puerto Rico to its parched capital.

Welcome news for San Juan, whose nearly 2 million residents endure water rationing during drought years. Starting Wednesday, about 390,000 residents in the San Juan area will find their taps dry every other day.

So when a court last month blocked construction of the $305 million pipeline project because it lacked proper permits, Gov. Pedro Rossello had a handy response: a bill, passed by his majority party in the legislature, saying the ``Superaqueduct″ cannot be stopped. Construction resumes Friday.

The law allows citizens harmed by pipeline construction to seek monetary damages but little else. It severely curbs the right to seek another court injunction.

Opposition lawmakers, environmentalists and legal experts are crying foul.

``There is a conspiracy between the executive and the legislature to strip away the authority of the judicial system,″ said Manuel Fermin Arraiza, president of Puerto Rico’s bar association.

Rossello argues that Puerto Ricans’ right to water outweighs individual rights in the courts.

``In these times where information can travel in microseconds, we cannot be struggling with systems that are so slow they don’t allow projects that will benefit all Puerto Ricans,″ Rossello said.

Struggles over water are common in the Caribbean, where many nations seasonally ration water. Scant rainfall this year has caused hunger in Haiti, hurt agriculture in the Dominican Republic, and fueled wildfires in Barbados and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Puerto Rico’s latest fight began May 20, when Mision Industrial, an environmental group, won the circuit court order stopping pipeline construction. The court said in part that the government had no permit to extract 100 million gallons of water a day from Rio Grande de Arecibo, 50 miles west of San Juan.

Rossello, who has staked prestige on the project, said the permit wasn’t needed. Getting one could take 18 months, delaying the pipeline’s 1998 completion date, his advisers said.

So Rossello presented his bill ordering the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority to resume construction.

Mision Industrial spokesman Wilfredo Lopez Montanez says the law will ``strip away legal protection for the environment and natural resources.″ He insists the aqueduct could harm Arecibo’s tidal marshes and fresh-water aquifers, as well as Taino Indian archaeological sites.

The crisis has renewed scrutiny of Puerto Rico’s antiquated water system. Officials have not plugged leaks nor cleared silt-clogging mountain reservoirs. So much sediment has collected that precious water flows into the sea during heavy rains.

Up to 37 percent of the system’s water is lost to leaks _ compared to, say, 5 percent in New York City. An estimated 100,000 families tap the system illegally. Neighborhoods suffer frequent outages.

The authority’s labor union says it needs more workers and equipment to fix the leaks. For years, governments have studied dredging the reservoirs. Dredging of one lake starts in July.

First proposed 20 years ago, the Superaqueduct was approved after a 1994 drought forced rationing for 1.8 million people, nearly half the population.

Construction began last year. Supporters argue it is the fastest and cheapest solution to Puerto Rico’s water woes. It will create or support 60,000 jobs, they note.

Mision Industrial says that by dredging reservoirs, plugging leaks and tapping aquifers, the government could produce 155 million gallons of water a day _ more than enough for the city.

``How can you say that you’re going to bring millions of gallons of water to a metropolitan system that loses close to 40 percent of it? Where’s the logic in that?″ Lopez Montanez asked.

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