Meet Brenda Torres

Title: Environmental Manager
Affiliation: San Juan Bay Estuary Program
Interview Date: May 30, 2018
Interview Language: English
Spatial coverage: Puerto Rico

Topics Covered in this Interview:
– mangrove, fishermen, desalination
– Vieques, Condado Lagoon, Cantera, San Juan Bay Estuary
– green infrastructure, Clean Water Act, water quality

Interview Highlights

On the impacts of Hurricane Maria on the Estuary Ecosystem
The San Juan Bay Estuary Program has been in operation for 24 years. So, we have a very strong platform. … So, I was in a good position to quickly react, and deploy resources, and contact people, and do quick assessments. So that’s exactly what I decided to do. I contacted the fishermen which are our partners and asked them, you know, “Is your boat in good shape? Can we just quickly go through the canals and the bays and see, you know, what’s the damage and how are people doing?” And so, believe it or not, going through the canals is easier than going through the roads, because of all the debris that was obstructing the path. So, we did that and through that assessment, I was like, “You know, this is something that is gonna require more than just restoration. … I really wanted to make sure that people realized the importance of this vegetation and of this green infrastructure for our own safety. Especially if we wanted … to rebuild in a sustainable and resilient way.

On the San Juan Bay Estuary Program’s work following Maria
So, what we [the San Juan Bay Estuary Program] are doing different, because of Maria … we’re not just doing water quality sampling and dealing with water quality, but we’re also managing issues related to renewable energy. … Our approach is way more comprehensive. … We’ve also been approached by the federal agencies that will be supporting the recovery process because they want to see how we’ve been able to identify and correct illicit discharges throughout the watershed, so they can actually replicate that throughout other watersheds … so other watershed managers can get that technical information and develop some capacities so they will eventually react more quickly to events like the ones we experienced with Maria. An idea of what we did immediately after Maria with this project in which we are detecting and correcting the illicit discharges is that we were not only able to see if those cases got worse, but we were also able to run analysis in terms of bacteria and … public health problems that were of concern to, not only the community, but also to the government agencies as well.

On the experience of drought
Going through a drought really changes your routine entirely. You just have to collect water in these bins and have to make sure the water is clean if you want to use it … And my family really makes sure that all of those elements, the safety ones and us being absolutely clean and everything, were present. But what concerns me is the people that do not have the resources to have that quality-control process in place. And so … thinking about Puerto Rico with the high level of poverty that we have, it’s a major concern if we go through another drought episode again.

On improving community access to clean water and building sustainable communities
One thing that I’m working on from my organization is safe water. We want to make sure that the Puerto Rican communities have access to safe water, and that they don’t feel concerned about the quality of the water. … That’s why I welcomed the desal[inization] plants that I received from the foundations. I not only got one, but I have four, in total. And my role is actually to empower the communities on how to use those plants. So, I deployed four of those plants in communities that have no access to water and are in remote areas. …

I’m not only deploying those, but also getting ready areas that are sort of like vacant lots. So, I’m transforming those vacant lots with green infrastructure. … The community is the one that is really doing most of the work. I’m just providing the capacity and the resources for them to be absolutely empowered. So, what I’m doing is identifying nonprofit organizations, or grassroots organizations, or faith-based organizations, that do have some strong links to the residents and do know exactly what is needed. And then I identify with them vacant lots or areas that could eventually … sort of redevelop or revitalize their region. And instead of developing those with concrete, I’m teaching them the importance of green infrastructure. … they are really embracing it. And they go through workshops where they exchange and share with us what is it that they see happening there in the future. And then after that, we provide the resources to transform the vacant lots. .… We also get funding to develop a green infrastructure master plan. And that master plan will be for the entire watershed. Again, it’s 97 square miles. We’ll be able to evaluate the percentage of areas that are green, what is needed, and when do we need to start transforming areas.

On adaptation in the face of extreme weather events
I saw a great deal of destruction in the vegetation and the landscape, the green infrastructure landscape. It was the first line of defense, you know … Other areas that were amazingly transformed were the coastlines. … And so, the entire landscape really got transformed. I was very impressed with the rainforest as well and how devastated it was. … But I think that nature is going to restore itself. My projects and the ones that I’m putting together are just ones that are done in an intentional way for us to continue to live in a safe way. So we sort of adapt to future climate events so we can continue to live in this island. And I think we should have done this many decades ago. But it wasn’t until now that the government and the private sector are thinking in a sustainable way.

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