Over 225 residents attend Rio Guayanilla, Puerto Rico public meeting

Published Dec. 7, 2018
A public comment is made during USACE's public scoping meeting in Rio Guayanilla, Nov. 28, 2018.

Yuki Galisanao, USACE Chicago District geotechnical engineer, looks for subsurface information during a Nov. 29, 2018, site visit.

A public comment is made during USACE's public scoping meeting in Rio Guayanilla, Nov. 28, 2018.

From left, Jorge Taus, project manager from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District San Juan project office, works alongside Frank Veraldi, USACE Chicago District lead planner, during a Nov. 29, 2018, site visit.

A public comment is made during USACE's public scoping meeting in Rio Guayanilla, Nov. 28, 2018.

A public comment is made during USACE's public scoping meeting in Rio Guayanilla, Nov. 28, 2018.

More than 225 people attended a public scoping meeting in Puerto Rico Nov. 28, 2018, for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Rio Guayanilla feasibility study. The meeting, hosted by the USACE Chicago District, was held in collaboration with the Corps’ Jacksonville District, the study's nonfederal sponsor; the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, and the Town of Guayanilla.

The study will investigate overbank flooding and infrastructure-threatening erosion along Rio Guayanilla, a watershed that measures 37 square miles. The feasibility study will focus on prioritizing high risk areas, and developing a range of possible structural and non-structural alternatives to reduce flood risk.

“The deviation of the Guayanilla River through this channeling project will help with the infrastructure of the city,” Guayanilla Mayor Nelson Torres Yordán said. “It will also help our local businesses, schools and, most important, it will guarantee the safety of our residents every time it rains or a hurricane hits the island.”

USACE is preparing a combined Feasibility Study Report and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document to evaluate the potential effects of alternatives to manage risks associated with flooding at Guayanilla, located 89 miles south of San Juan and within the active floodplain of Rio Guayanilla. It has experienced flood damages and socio-economic impacts as a result, with the latest effects stemming from Hurricane Maria in 2017. Measures and alternatives that could be evaluated to reduce flood risk and erosion include levees or floodwalls, diversion channels, channel modifications, flow control structures, flood proofing, structure elevations, and buyouts.  

“I give you my personal commitment that we’re committed to do everything in our power to generate a project here that reduces flood risks to your community and to each and every single one of you,” Col. Aaron Reisinger, Chicago District commander, said at the Nov. 28 public meeting. “I really appreciate the opportunity to be here. I’m really looking forward to your comments.”

As part of the NEPA scoping process, the Chicago District accepted comments from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. During that time, the district received about 30 public and written comments with topics ranging from flooding, human environment, wetlands, rare and unique habitat, threatened and endangered species, and cultural and social resources and impacts.

According to Yordán, when the river overflows all of the municipality’s essential services are interrupted, and its local Emergency Management and Police departments are not able to respond to emergencies effectively.

“This project will definitely bring peace of mind,” he said. “But it will also bring a boost to our economy because when the river is no longer a threat, developers and investors will be interested in establishing their business in our city.”

 The Corps’ Rio Guayanilla project delivery team (PDT) was on hand to answer questions at the public meeting, and spent hours out in the field that same week gathering data that will be used to inform the modeling and alternative assessment work. The team also met with a handful of stakeholders that included the Puerto Rico State Historic Preservation Office, Guayanilla Police Department, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Jeff Zuercher, project manager, sees the project from start to finish, and makes sure his PDT has anything and everything it needs – from funding to de-conflicting schedules. He was able to go to Puerto Rico in September for an initial visit.

“It was great to be able to meet with the mayor and his team to learn about the situation and the impacts that it is having on the community,” he said. “We were able to see firsthand the amount of destruction caused by the devastating floods and the impacts to the community. It solidified in my mind the importance of this project and the good that we could do for the community if we are able to come up with a viable solution.”

Frank Veraldi, lead planner, said his main focus is environmental assessment and compliance. This includes assessing effects of potential project features on wetlands, habitat, natural resources, and endangered species; and coordinating with regulatory agencies and the public.

“I will also be providing assistance to the flood risk management lead planner in compiling and writing the main report, developing measures and alternatives to reduce flood risks, and designing and justifying mitigation if required,” he said.

David Druzbicki, cost engineer, develops the cost estimates for the various alternative plans. He said site visits are always important in determining costs.

“I was able to get a lot of good information from Jorge Tous (USACE Jacksonville District project manager based in Puerto Rico) in regarding current market conditions, labor and material availability, potential borrow sites, site conditions, access, along with other ongoing projects in Puerto Rico,” he said. “I will be using all of this information to prepare the estimates.”

Kristine Meyer, hydraulic engineer, investigated the river and its watershed.

“I observed, since my visit in September, that there had been significant sediment deposits in various locations along the river,” she said. “This was good to see in person as others from Puerto Rico told me this could be a challenge with the proposed design.”

Meredith Moreno, lead archaeologist in Jacksonville District’s Environmental Branch, is the cultural resources PDT member for the project.

“I will be managing the cultural resources survey of the project area, coordinating with the Puerto Rico State Historic Preservation Office, and writing the cultural resources portion of the environmental assessment,” she said.

Yuki Galisanao, geotechnical engineer, said she spent her field time looking at the subsurface information in the area, plus determining current levee design.

“In Puerto Rico, it was mostly to become familiar with the project area, assessing potential issues with the location of the levees and boring locations, looking at similar projects to get a better understanding of how they construct levees there, and data collection,” she said.

Jorge Tous has been involved in every site visit and meeting for the Rio Guayanilla project since day one. He began working for the Corps in 1982 with the New Orleans District. Then, in 1987, he moved to the Jacksonville District office in Puerto Rico. 

“I have been working with Rio Guayanilla flooding problems for over 30 years,” he said. “I put together the Corps’ 1990 Reconnaissance Report. I also did most of the previous data and research for other reports, too.”

He said there have been more than 10 floods in the past 25 years. Over 1,000 homes, businesses, industries, and utility services have been affected. The Department of Natural Resources completed some detailed engineering analysis studies, along with an environmental impact statement at the end of the 1980s. In the May 1990 Reconnaissance Report, five alternatives were proposed that included dikes, improvements to canals, diversion of canals, dams, improvement and replacement of bridges.

Tous said he’s also formed partnerships with several agencies and many municipalities in Puerto Rico over the years.

“Partnerships are important to create the necessary trust and engagement from the locals,” he said.

The current feasibility phase includes the scope and formulation of the alternatives. Here, there is an inventory taken of what the existing conditions are, and a forecast of future conditions.

“That is why information from the public is very important,” Zuercher said. “We’re seeking data regarding any previous preliminary costs and benefits, plus flood damages and impacts to the community.”

The next phase is analysis and evaluation of the alternatives. In this, the design, cost, and environmental impact are measured. These potential alternatives are evaluated and compared to identify a tentatively-selected plan. Then a Project Report is published so that the public, other agencies, and internal reviewers can give their comments in that regard, on those alternative plans. The target date for that phase is fall 2019.

Sue Davis, chief of Planning, said her role is to ensure that we complete a sound and defensible study. 

“The people in Puerto Rico are energized and committed to taking advantage of the opportunity that the supplemental bill has provided,” she said. “I can't remember a time when so many agencies participated in public meetings. We've had a great response from the agencies, and the community has been so proactive it is making our work easier.” 

“This project will revitalize the city of Guayanilla, upturn the economic activities, and stabilize the social ones,” Yordán said. “Meaning that our people will not have to migrate to other cities so that they can perform economic and social activities here, and that we will able to welcome residents of the nearby cities. As the Mayor of Guayanilla and as a Puerto Rican, I hope this project can also help us burgeon all our in-house projects in order to contribute with the economic growth of Guayanilla and Puerto Rico.”

 “I am so excited for the opportunity to work with our great team here in support of the Corps-wide enterprise,” Davis said. “The people in Guayanilla have been through a lot heartbreak, but they continue to persevere. They are committed to finding a solution to the flooding that has been plaguing them for decades.”

Zuercher added that the PDT knows that a recommended project and construction of a viable alternative could be a game changer for Guayanilla. 

“We saw firsthand how other USACE projects in Puerto Rico were able to spur development and economic benefits for entire communities,” Zuercher said.  “The team wants to produce a high-quality product as quickly as possible to give Guayanilla a chance to experience a renaissance of their own.”