Beach and coastal erosion are a growing threat in the Caribbean region and Puerto Rico is no exception. The popular beach of Ocean Park in San Juan is a case in point.
A stretch of three or four city blocks is now under water, most noticeably in front of Hostería del Mar at the end of Tapia Street. At the same time, several palm trees have fallen down in a space of about a week. THE WEEKLY JOURNAL first saw two palm trees down one weekend and by the end of the week, several more had fallen into the water. Some palm trees had also been washed away and their trunks were lying further down the beach.
It’s just not residents and tourism-related businesses that are affected by the problem, as environmental issues are also of concern, such as sea turtle nesting grounds in the area. In the event of a strong storm, the surge of water could be such that the area, already prone to flooding, will be worse than usual, affecting many more properties.
In brief, the entire area has now become more vulnerable to the forces of Mother Nature.
Recently, THE WEEKLY JOURNAL accompanied a group of scientists from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and local residents on an on-site visit of the affected area.
Hostería del Mar has lost its beachfront locale and business is noticeably down. “We’ve lost a lot of business. There is almost no one here. They come, expecting the beach and when they see there isn’t one out front, they leave,” said an employee at the reception area. “We just had someone cancel. They were going to be here for nine days.”
At the nearby Número Uno Guest House, which has not been affected, an employee said they were concerned that the erosion was spreading quickly and could soon affect their business. “I’ve worked here for many years and I’ve never seen it like that. What’s worrying is that the beach hasn’t returned, as it usually does,” she said.
Local resident Hilda Benítez, who has lived in Ocean Park all her life, agreed with this assessment. “We have seen changes since 2015 but nothing so quickly. This happened in less than a year and the beach erosion is spreading. The beach is not coming back. We need to have mitigation efforts now, we can’t wait two or three years to do something,” she said.
Benítez is a member of the nonprofit “Grupo Tortuguero de San Juan 7 Quillas,” which protects sea turtles and helps conserve the beaches in the metro area. “This area is a sea turtle nesting ground and we have lost many nests already,” she said. Since sea turtles return to the same beaches where they were born to lay their eggs, she is concerned that their nesting grounds in Ocean Park may be lost.
Help Is On The Way, But It Will Take Time
UPR Professor Maritza Barreto, who is also the head of the “Red de Playas de Puerto Rico y el Caribe,” said an islandwide study is being conducted on the problem of beach and coastal erosion.
UPR’s Graduate School of Planning at the Río Piedras Campus is working on a study as part of a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Puerto Rico government’s Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3) Office, with the principal aim of evaluating the state of the island’s beaches and coastal zones after the impact of Hurricane Maria in Sept. 2017.
Barreto, who is a geologist by profession, said the first phase will focus on 10 municipalities, including San Juan—including the Ocean Park area—Loíza, Aguadilla, Aguada and Humacao. The study on these areas will be completed in Jan. 2020, with the team moving on to other municipalities.
“What we have to do in Ocean Park is study what is going on. Right now, we can’t say definitively what is the cause of the beach erosion and what should be the best ways to mitigate the problem,” she said. The team has data on the area, up to the Ultimo Trolley beach, since 2012. She concurred that the beach erosion in Ocean Park is “severe,” but said the beach is not necessarily completely lost.
Mitigation efforts, which will take some time, could include reconstructing dunes, planting vegetation and re-injecting sand to replenish the beach. Barreto and her team are wary of constructing barriers because they said it could have a further negative impact on the ecosystem.
“There should have been action decades ago. We have needed public policy changes for decades. How long have we been talking about climate change?” she said. “There could have been remediation efforts, but no. This is the result.”
After a brief evaluation, the UPR scientists said the beach erosion could be due in part to a change in the pattern of the waves and winds in the area. Another possibility is that the natural coral reef that is located several hundred yards offshore, may have been weakened due in part to sedimentation. As the coral weakens, they break off much easier and thus, the making the waves stronger.
DNER Responds To The Clamor
Ernesto Díaz, director of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) Coastal Management and Climate Change Division, said the agency is working on the problem, especially since after Maria. “We had a meeting with local residents, along with the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The study is important to access federal funds for mitigation works,” he emphasized. However, the entire study will not be completed for another two years, he indicated.
“The rate of erosion is exacerbated… and we are seeing similar events happening in Rincón,” he said to THE WEEKLY JOURNAL. “Beaches are dynamic systems of equilibrium but if [the balance] is altered, it could affect sediment transportation,” he said, adding that a global rise in sea levels is another part of the equation. “The tidal influence and waves are operating at a higher level, so there is more impact inland,” he said.
Díaz agreed with the other mitigation efforts that could be used and added that an artificial reef could be another possibility to help decrease the wave energy. “Beach nourishment could be done. The lost sand is there, between the beach and the [natural] coral reef. This is costly, though,” he said.
Regardless, the agency will work with the Corps of Engineers and other team members to present the best options to fight the beach erosion, he said. The mitigation plan will extend from around the Caribe Hilton all the way to the ‘Boca de Cangrejo” bridge before entering the Piñones restaurant area.
The need for federal funds was highlighted when Díaz mentioned that a beach mitigation plan for the Miami Beach area in Florida cost $120 million.
In the meantime, he said the residents’ organization of Ocean Park should focus on “temporary emergency measures” to alleviate the problem. “They need to present options developed by coastal engineers to the Corps of Engineers and DNER,” he said.