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Water contamination in the Caño Tiburones Reserve, Puerto Rico

Sugar cane plantations and thermal power plant altering a delicate aquatic ecosystem. Currently the SOPI (Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña Inc.) is trying to expand the Nature Reserve to help prevent further contamination


Caño Tiburones is a natural reserve located in the town of Arecibo, even though its territory stretches into Barceloneta. This location is unique in Puerto Rico due to its ecology and hydrology. Until the mid-20th century, this zone was one of the largest wetlands in the island. Usually, subterranean water flows from the warmer southern water basin towards the coastal zones and the wetland fringe area. In the past, there had been a balance between fresh water and salt water that entered from the sea towards these wetlands, maintaining mostly freshwater zone. Thanks to this balance, El Caño has sustained its abundant aquatic fauna.   This process and balance were altered in the decade of 1940 when water draining canals were built with the goal to dry up these areas to plant sugar cane. This change has had grave consequences for this area and affected the flora and fauna of the region. Some pumps carried over 105 mgd of water, including aquifer-bound water, off the wetlands. This caused the water canal levels to remain under sea level, which in turn made sea water return to the drain canals through springs. The salt water mixed with the fresh aquifer water and flooded several previously freshwater areas.  In 1998, the natural reserve known as Caño Tiburones was created and, thanks to this, the zone was partly restored.  The pumping system was fixed and fresh water has redistributed through the areas. Still, these waters are of poor quality due to its salinity. Today, septic tanks from residential and commercial areas are probably indirectly depositing contaminated water into the basin.  Also, the Cambalache thermoelectric plant from the AEE deposits their water on the Arecibo Bay and extracts approximately 1 mgd of aquifer water hydrologically connected to the Caño. These events are likely causing damage to the basin and to the restoration efforts of Cano Tiburones, and civilians of the area report wariness about the ecologic wellbeing of the area.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Water contamination in the Caño Tiburones Reserve, Puerto Rico
Country:Puerto Rico
Location of conflict:Arecibo, Barceloneta
Accuracy of locationLOW (Country level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Plantation conflicts (incl. Pulp
Wetlands and coastal zone management
Thermal power plants
Establishment of reserves/national parks
Specific commodities:Biological resources
Sugar Cane
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Project area:15,280
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:07/12/1940
Relevant government actors:N/a
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:SOPI (Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña Inc.)
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Social movements
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Soil erosion, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Potential: Soil contamination
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusProposed (exploration phase)
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Negotiated alternative solution
Strengthening of participation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Under negotiation
Proposal and development of alternatives:Currently the SOPI (Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña Inc.) is trying to expand the Nature Reserve to help prevent further contamination.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The government is yet to come to a agreement with expanding the natural reserve and continues to allow contamination to enter the reserve.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Nature Reserve,1998

DRNA Investigation on November 07
[click to view]

Primerahora. (2016, Octubre 21). Retrieved Febrero 27, 2017, from Exigen a la Autoridad de Tierras aceptar proteger el Caño Tiburones:
[click to view]

DRNA. (n.d.). Retrieved Febrero 28, 2017, from Área Costanera del Caño Tiburones:
[click to view]

Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales busca paralizar protección total del Caño Tiburones
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Meta information
Contributor:De’Mitrius Sanchez Mateo [email protected] University of Puerto Rico Recinto de Mayaguez
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2751
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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