Friday, August 14, 2015

Water shortages in Puerto Rico are made worse by crumbling infrastructure

(A new water line is installed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, funded by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), ca. 1933-35. Photo by FERA.)

Puerto Rico is suffering from water shortages, and crumbling infrastructure is making the problem even worse: "The fiscal crisis and the drought are intertwined...for decades Puerto Rico has put off spending money on fixing and strengthening its infrastructure, including water reservoirs and aqueducts, so much of the little water left is being lost due to cracks and leaks" ("Water Rationing in Puerto Rico Hits the Poor, Leaves Resorts Untouched," ThinkProgress, August 10, 2015).

Of course, the problem of crumbling infrastructure and lack of investment is hardly unique to Puerto Rico. In San Bruno, California, for example, a pipe installed in 1927 broke on July 27 and 15 million gallons of clean water ended up in the San Francisco Bay. Indeed, every year in America there are a quarter-of-a-million water main breaks, causing a loss of about 2 trillion gallons of water. Again, that's every year. And this is happening while there are droughts and water shortages in many states, and even more water shortages on the horizon.

So, are America's political "leaders" concerned? Well, some are...but Republican politicians most definitely are not. During the two recent presidential debates not one question and not one comment pertained to America's crumbling infrastructure - infrastructure that garnered a "D+" letter grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2013.

(Another photo from the San Juan waterline project. New Deal policymakers felt that when unemployment was high--it's currently around 12.6% in Puerto Rico--and infrastructure needed repair or improvement, why not put the two together? So, they did - and Puerto Rico, as well as the rest of America, has benefited from those infrastructure investments ever since. Photo by FERA.)
During the New Deal, things were much different. For example, let's look at the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Puerto Rico. Between 1933 and 1935, there were waterwork projects (water lines, aqueducts, reservoirs, etc.) in San Juan, Guaynabo, Isabela, Barrio Planas, Coamo, Gurabo, Yabucoa, Humacao, Rio Pedras, Barceloneta, Cayey, and "improvements and repairs in 22 other towns and cities" (Report of the Puerto Rican Emergency Relief Administration and Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939, pp. 28-30).
There were many other public works projects in Puerto Rico during the New Deal era, conducted through the funding & efforts of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA). With respect to the PRRA, a scholar from the City University of New York came to the conclusion (in research for a dissertation) that the infrastructure work performed by these Puerto Rican engineers and laborers "made lasting contributions to local social and economic life..."
 (WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

So, why aren't we investing heavily in infrastructure today? First, many (perhaps most) Americans are unaware of this history - so they don't know what they're missing, and thus don't know what to fight for. Second, our Republican-led Congress is more interested in tax breaks for the wealthy (some of whom use Puerto Rico as a tax haven) and more interested in increasing war spending (to feed the military-industrial complex - an industry that no doubt contributes mightily to Republican political campaigns). Sadly, to most Republican politicians, infrastructure spending & improvement is a "nonstarter."

(Also see, "The Stunning Collapse of Infrastructure Spending in One Chart," ThinkProgress, November 1, 2013, and "Top GOP Senator Blames His Party For Lack Of Highway Funding," Huffington Post, May 19, 2015)

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