Puerto Rico, Spanish for "rich port," is a 3,515-square mile island, home to about 3.6 million people, about a third of which live in the San Juan metropolitan area. It is sometimes referred to in Spanish as "La Isla del Encanto," or the Enchanted Island. But for the 26,000 who live in the Caño Martín Peña area, most of whom live under the poverty level, the "enchanted" description might seem a bit hollow.

A 3.5-mile long tidal channel, the Caño Martín Peña (CMP), was in 1936 about 200 to 400 feet wide. It connected this community by water to Rio Puerto Nuevo and ultimately San Juan Harbor and provided a vital connection between San Juan Bay and San José Lagoon. Impoverished peasants who migrated to San Juan during the first half of the 20th century built their homes in the mangroves bordering the CMP. For decades, the CMP has been a symbol of urban poverty and environmental degradation.

Today, the water in the channel is heavily polluted with sediment, trash, fecal contamination and coliform bacteria. During rain events, this polluted water makes its way into the flooded streets, where it pools at levels of up to three or more feet. The bacteria it carries make both the young and the elderly susceptible to gastrointestinal and respiratory problems. One resident said that rats and cockroaches run rampant during these floods. It rains a lot in Puerto Rico.

For decades, vegetative material and household waste were used to dry the wetlands adjacent to the CMP and the channel itself. Construction debris, old television sets, refrigerators and other forms of trash found a home in the CMP as well. Today the channel is only four to16 feet wide and navigation is impossible. In fact, one can actually walk across it. Combined with a lack of sewer systems in the impoverished community, the CMP acts like a toilet bowl, flushing waste into the San Juan Estuary.

Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) recently visited CMP with members of ENLACE, an alliance of community, public and private organizations that work together on behalf of the eight communities along the channel. The goal of the visit was to see firsthand how dredging the channel may work, in partnership with other community improvement efforts by ENLACE, to literally change the lives and health of those who live there. Darcy was accompanied by Maj. Gen. Todd Semonite, deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Brig. Gen. Ed Jackson, commander of South Atlantic Division and Col. Alan Dodd, commander of Jacksonville District.

"On [this,] my second visit to Caño Martín Peña, I was reminded of the passion that the people living here have for restoring their own backyard," said Darcy. "The channel was chosen to be part of the president's Urban Water Federal Partnership program. This partnership will reconnect the inhabitants of eight urban communities in San Juan with their waterways. Together with local government and organizations we are improving water quality, restoring the watershed and addressing public safety."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District is working on the review and approval of a Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement for this environmental restoration project, as authorized by Section 5127 of the Water Resources and Development Act of 2007. Upon approval of the report and the provision of federal funding, the project will move into the design phase, and contingent upon future funding, the project will then move into construction.

"This project is not only key to the environment, but to the health and well-being of the residents of the Caño," said Jim Suggs, project manager. "The approval of this report will be the lynch pin to success for the project's path forward and completion. Ultimately, the benefactors of our efforts will be the residents of the Caño."

Legislation established Project ENLACE Caño Martín Peña with a mission to implement a $744 million land use and development plan. The Caño Martín Peña Special Planning District Act (Law 489) also created the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust, a first in Puerto Rico, which guarantees affordable housing, resolves land tenure issues, and reinvests any future increase in land value back into the community. The Land Trust is essential to the plan's implementation, as it prevents gentrification and ensures that the current residents benefit directly from investment in infrastructure, urban reform and environmental restoration.

"After hosting Ms. Darcy and the Corps team, we are confident that the process to approve the feasibility report will continue to move forward expeditiously so this urgent restoration project -- 50 years in the making -- can become a reality," said Lyvia N. Rodriguez Del Valle, executive director, Corporación del Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña. "The Caño communities and their local and federal partners continue to work towards this goal of environmental justice and new economic development opportunities for Puerto Rico."

ENLACE addresses environmental justice through mechanisms that allow for transparency, trust in institutions, bottom-up participation, interdisciplinary approaches, respect for diversity, concurrent planning and implementation, constant evaluation and celebration of successes. Successful projects have included outreach on environmental awareness to more than 3,000 students, the construction of the first vacuum sewer system in Puerto Rico, and the relocation of hundreds of households to allow for dredging of the contaminated channel.

Page last updated Fri March 7th, 2014 at 14:07