RINCÓN, PUERTO RICO — Known for its beautiful beaches, magical sunsets, coral reefs and water sports, Rincón is one of Puerto Rico’s most popular tourist destinations.
The formal population of this municipality on Puerto Rico’s western coast is just 13,627, according to 2018 census estimates. But there are an additional 100,000 “floating” residents, or people who visit or live here for short periods of time, according to the municipal tourism office.
And those numbers are on the rise.
Since Hurricane Maria devastated much of the island in September 2017, developers have been converting new homes and hotels to support the growing tourism industry. Now, the area doesn’t have the infrastructure capacity to host all of its new visitors, says Juan Carlos Pérez, public relations officer for the Rincón Municipality.
And local marine researchers agree. They say there’s something in the water that could threaten both tourists and the elkhorn coral, a species which is already at risk of extinction south of the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve.
There is too much bacteria, which comes from fecal matter, in the water, says Steve Tamar, vice chair of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, which monitors ocean water quality, and director of the Blue Water Task Force program.
From his office and laboratory, tucked among boxes and the coastal water samples he collects each week, he says the quantity of bacteria from fecal sediment is on the rise.
This type of bacteria, which is found in sewage water, can cause infections in the skin and nasal membranes. “They can also cause sickness and infection in people,” Tamar says.
The municipality’s sewage system is overflowing into the ocean due to overload at the pump, which is endangering the coastal waters and the health of coral reefs in the area’s prized Tres Palmas Marine Reserve.
Still, Pérez disputes that the level of contamination is widespread.
“It’s small, it’s not a river,” he says referring to the flow of sewage into the sea. “It doesn’t represent a lot of contamination for that area.”
Betsy Bonet, a municipal legislator, disagrees. She says the local infrastructure wasn’t designed for this magnitude of growth.
The sanitary pump systems were installed by the Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority, Bonet says. But other community members allege that the system was recently expanded without authorization to serve new housing developments, which led to the leakages.
Representatives from the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority did not respond to requests for comment about whether or not the system was connected to new housing projects without authorization.
But for the area’s many marine biologists and environmental organizations, the more pressing issue is testing the true damage that the increase in fecal bacteria is having on these endangered coral reserves.
The Tres Palmas Marine Reserve was established as a protected space in 2004. In coastal waters fit for recreational use and up to three miles out, the density of bacteria found in feces and sewage, should not exceed 70 colonies per 100 milliliters in order to be safe for swimming, Tamar says.
But local samples confirm that bacteria levels here are as much as three times higher than that.
But local scientists don’t have the budget or the permission to investigate further and truly understand the impact on the endangered reefs.
“We can’t test whether the runoff affects the marine reserve,” Tamar says, adding that they need permission from the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority to study the reef.
A study on the health of the reef, conducted in 2011 by the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Public Health, confirmed that the elkhorn coral, especially in the southern region of the marine reserve, was suffering from diseases associated with coastal fecal contamination from proximity to human settlements and poor functioning and maintenance of septic tanks.
But much more testing can be done.
“What I want is permission to use a tint called rhodamine,” Tamar says, referring to a product that makes bacteria visible by tinting them red or making them visible under ultraviolet light, which would allow him to observe the extent of contamination from the gorge overflow.
The consequences of inaction are serious, says Berliz Morales, a marine consultant for the research, education and community engagement program Sea Grant, which operates at the university with federal funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
She says coral is vital, and not just because it’s a tourist attraction. It creates a barrier that protects the shore from flooding during storms and floods.
“It’s our barrier against the big surges,” she says.
Allison Braden, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced a water study and the density of fecal bacteria in coastal waters fit for recreational use. Global Press Journal regrets the error.