In Puerto Rico, more than 250,000 residents lack basic access to clean water or sanitation. While there are several barriers, one obstacle is a lack of coordination. At the local level, communities are working together to share knowledge and resources. Community-based groups (like OSAN) help members figure out where to focus their time. At the federal level, agencies create programs to improve access to water resources. These programs fund local projects and increase capacity for investing in water resources. Between the two levels, regional networks, universities, and nonprofits are bridging the gap.

How can we make sure all groups can support local communities in achieving their goals of ensuring clean water?

La Calidad del Agua en Las Curias (Water Quality in Las Curías).
One community that is creating a new model for engagement is Las Curías, in greater San Juan. Located up in the mountains, the community surrounds the only lake in San Juan, created by a dam built back in 1946. The Las Curías community is one of hundreds in Puerto Rico that use septic systems to treat wastewater. Without maintenance, theses systems break down over time. Pollutants leach into the lake, impacting water quality and potentially threatening public health. 

Students from UPRRP’s Limnology Lab meeting with community leaders from Comunidad Las Curías and representatives from the Environmental Finance Center Network in 2022.

While the lake is beautiful to visit, residents have been working to clean it up. Improvements will benefit both the local community and the greater San Juan watershed. If done right, they can also provide a model for co-creating future improvements with local leaders.

Partners working in the Las Curías watershed include:

  • Comunidad Las Curías, which operates drinking and septic water systems and maintains a community center near the lake. The Center was recently renovated with support from the Municipality of San Juan and the Puerto Rican legislature.
  • The Limnology Lab at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. Run by Dr. Jorge Ortiz, the lab conducts field work with students.
  • Syracuse University Environmental Finance Center. SU-EFC operates a Caribbean Program, run by Dr. Kaira Fuentes.
  • The San Juan Bay Estuary Program, which convenes researchers, community leaders and other stakeholders.

In mid-2022, community leaders sat down with the team from UPRRP’s Limnology Lab and SU-EFC’s Caribbean Program. A team of students, supervised by Dr. Ortiz, are measuring water quality in the lake. The team is developing a community science program in partnership with community leaders to protect the lake, and give local leaders data they need to determine next steps. Additional support from EPA will help move this project forward in 2023 and beyond.

Building off Prior Research
The pilot project is the latest in a series of research partnerships. In 2018, the engineering firm Tetra Tech mapped out the Las Curías area. Their research goal was to support comprehensive watershed and lake management. It included three steps:

  • Identify available data to support a watershed characterization;
  • Provide stakeholders with an assessment of likely sources of nutrient pollution; and
  • Give stakeholders information to seek community support and capacity to advance next steps.

Since then, studies have been conducted by UPRRP and partners, including a 2020 study on invasive plants. Cross-sector efforts have also helped connect research with local leaders and agency partners. The San Juan Bay Estuary Program, which EPA created in 1992, serves a critical role. Their efforts, and those of their partners, are setting the stage for projects that improve public health and protect the aquatic environment in Puerto Rico.

NEW! World Water Film Fest
In March 2023, a short film about the pilot project premiered at the first World Water Film Fest. The festival coincided with the UN Water Conference and the annual New York Water Week. Hosted at the Columbia Climate School, the free festival featured a day of in-person screenings, followed by a week-long online festival.

The Festival also brought together a panel of water experts from across Latin America to talk about their various projects. You can watch a recording of the panel, featuring Dr. Kaira Fuentes and others, here.

How to Support
This project has the potential to expand. Continued support from agencies like the USEPA and USDA is providing critical technical support. Funding from other sources, including private foundations, can help fill in gaps as they are identified. If you represent a funding organization and would like to learn more about supporting water quality improvements in Las Curías and other communities in Puerto Rico, contact a member of our team below.

Our Team

Dr. Kaira Fuentes, PhD, Caribbean Program Manager, Syracuse University
Dr. Jorge Ortiz, PhD, UPR Limnology Lab, University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras
Patrick Lynch, JD, MPA, Program and Development Manager, Syracuse University
Tess Clark, MS, Water Resiliency Manager, Syracuse University
Stefanie Anderson, MS, Caribbean Program Associate, Syracuse University
Averi Davis, BS, Communications Associate, Syracuse University