The rumble of heavy equipment could be heard down the road, growing louder minute by minute. As the first excavator turned the corner a block away and rolled towards the river, it was followed by two more in formation. Five minutes later, a fourth excavator appeared on the horizon, already in the river and rumbling along to meet up with the rest (left). Neighbors in this storm-ravaged ward in Coamo looked on as the equipment arrived to help restore the river and protect surrounding homes early Monday morning, December 11, 2017.

The Coamo River is located in south-central Puerto Rico and is a major feature of the Municipality of Coamo, population of about 40,000. The Coamo River hosts white egrets and other wildlife throughout the year. A large section of the river and the surrounding watershed was damaged during Hurricane Maria, and NRCS prioritized its repair through the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program

“This is the first EWP project to begin on the island,” said Edwin Almodóvar, NRCS Caribbean Area Director (right, at right), “ it’s a very important day for USDA-NRCS in the Caribbean. Providing the necessary help to the communities, in this case in Coamo, under the EWP program, clearing debris from the channels. We anticipate EWP continuing in Puerto Rico and the USVI over the next year. I know that the sponsors are committed to help restore the damaged watersheds and help the communities get back to normal after these hurricanes.”

To use EWP at any repair site, a government entity (large or small) needs to step up to become NRCS’s sponsor on the project. Sponsors, among other things are responsible for securing the necessary permits, providing land rights to do repair work, and furnishing the local cost share. Regardless, they are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the work is completed to NRCS’s standards. Coamo River was labeled an exigency project, so the work must be completed within 10 days to protect the area from further damage. Not all projects get the exigency tag. Projects deemed as emergency, but not at the highest threshold, can be completed within 220 days.

Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA) applied to be the sponsor for Coamo River and nine other sites. Because DRNA was so interested in Coamo River, they are completing the work themselves, with approximately 30 staff, as a demonstration site. Coamo River suffered from excessive sediment that washed downstream and blocked the culverts under a bridge. Large boulders blocking the river required the use of multiple excavators to clear the debris.

“We want to become the example to follow for other sponsors in the reconstruction efforts and protection of water bodies,” said Israel Alicea, DRNA administrator of regional operations. “We have a 10-day limit to finish. We will clean the river bed and return it back to its natural state.”