Effects of land cover change and climate variability on water delivery services in Puerto Rico

Collaborators: Javier Arce (University of Puerto Rico) and Pierre Gentine (Columbia University).

Watershed ecosystem services such as the provision of fresh water resources are essential for most societies. The sustainability of these services in dynamic landscapes, and therefore, the vulnerability of the human populations they support, depends on complex and interacting socio-economic, biophysical, and institutional factors. This project will analyze how biophysical and social factors affect the delivery of fresh water to rural communities in Puerto Rico. There are over 300 small rural communities throughout Puerto Rico, which manage their own private water delivery. Populations served by these systems range from 100,000 to 300,000 people island-wide. These private drinking water systems are mostly located in rural, economically challenged areas and serve communities with low average education levels, as well as high unemployment and under-employment rates. Often residents of these communities are at risk for acute and chronic waterborne illness due to non-compliance with drinking water quality standards, an issue which has been recognized as a public health threat by the government since the 1980’s.

We are exploring how social structures and management actions are effective in reducing vulnerability of these rural populations to ongoing changes in land use and climate. We are examining this question using the tools of the natural, social, and atmospheric sciences, including detailed field research, land use change analyses, hydrology, and modeling. Specifically, we are investigating: (1) how land use change and precipitation variability influence fresh water delivery; (2) the degree to which socioeconomic factors and governance structures affect access to fresh water in rural communities; and (3) how regional climate change, particularly shifts in the frequency of droughts and tropical storms, might disturb the regulation and vulnerability of water delivery to these communities. The goal is to identify the aspects of landscape management and water governance that affect access to water and water quality under precipitation extremes.

Figures 1 and 2. Private water delivery system in Puerto Rico. Water is first collected in small dams and then transferred to a holding where it is treated before delivery.



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