Potable Water Challenges: Island Style

Virgin Islands National Park may epitomize the beauty of the Caribbean, but the property faces many obstacles in its efforts to establish potable water.

 

By Lt. j.g. Kelly Hoeksema, EIT, M.SAME, USPHS

  


 

Surrounded by the beautiful blues of the Caribbean Sea, the mountainous terrain of St. John, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is home to the Virgin Islands National Park, which was so dedicated on Dec. 1, 1956, “a sanctuary wherein natural beauty, wild­life, and historic objects will be conserved unimpaired for the enjoyment of the people and generations yet unborn.”

Approximately 400,000 to 500,000 tour­ists visit the park annually. It is renowned for its breathtaking beauty, and includes 7,200-acres of land and 5,600-acres of underwater land. The land acres comprise 60 percent of St. John’s landmass. Despite the wonders of the Virgin Islands National Park, there are numerous challenges the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) faces to protect the public health of visitors.

Francis Bay, USVI

FRESH WATER SCARCITY

Fresh water is a necessary yet limited resource on St. John. In Virgin Islands National Park there are 20 water systems that provide water for visitor public use areas, staff housing units, the visitor center and NPS offices. The water treatment systems are antiquated and lack proper operation and maintenance.

NPS is currently seek­ing to reconfigure the park’s cistern water systems to meet both U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NPS require­ments. NPS requested a U.S. Public Health Service engineer to conduct an assessment of the treatment systems. I was appointed to the task, and became the first uniformed officer duty stationed on the island of St. John.

 


Fresh water is a necessary yet limited resource on St. John. In Virgin Islands National Park there are 20 water systems that provide water for visitor public use areas, staff housing units, the visitor center and NPS offices.


 

DOCUMENTING DEFICIENCIES

During the assessment, more than 200 deficiencies were documented on the Virgin Islands National Park’s water systems. Some of the deficiencies include the water having inadequate contact time with chlorine, insufficient filtration, incor­rect installation of disinfectant injectors, and systems improperly configured.

Each deficiency was evaluated based on its impact to public health, general safety concern, and overall complexity of miti­gating the deficiency. To assist the park in maintaining its water treatment systems, I developed an orientation presentation for new water operators as well as a system maintenance schedule and updated logs for tracking system maintenance.

The next step was to develop a plan to address the deficiencies. I developed the requirements for repair, wrote the state­ment of work, conducted market research, generated a cost estimate and worked with the park to identify funds for the mitigation of deficiencies. A contract is currently in place to address the deficiencies in 17 of the 20 water treatment systems. Through my role as the contracting officer’s repre­sentative, I also need to ensure the repairs are correctly completed through review of submittals, site inspections, coordina­tion with users, and acceptance of work. In addition, the park has been approached to consider the installation of a system that would power a reverse osmosis plant through solar energy, with back-up power generated by natural elevation change. This could greatly reduce the electric bill for the park’s two reverse osmosis water treatment plants. Electricity costs $.54/kWh in the U.S. Virgin Islands—more than five times the national average.

Complicating matters, there are two mosquito-transmitted viruses confirmed in the islands, Dengue and Chikungunya Fever. I am responsible for assisting in coordinating communications between the park and public health officials concerning Chikungunya and to increase the awareness of public knowledge concerning the virus.

 

PUBLIC HEALTH CHALLENGES

Virgin Islands National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the world despite public health challenges on the island. Its continued success, however, will not be possible without the commitment of NPS to keep the public safe from disease as its top priority. While the park is taking steps to improve its water treatment systems, there are many obstacles it faces due to location that are presently insurmountable. Some of the basic challenges the park has to endure are simply because it is on an island in the Caribbean Sea. St. John, first, is hindered by its limited land mass, tipping the scales at a mere 20-mi², approximately 60 percent of which is owned by the Virgin Islands National Park. This leaves a meager 8-mi² for development. Much of this area is ill-suited steep, rocky terrain.

insufficient piping example

Stateside, potable water plants draw water from freshwater sources (lakes and rivers). St. John lacks freshwater sources, but does have salt ponds and the salt water of the Caribbean Sea. Seawater is the primary source for the public water system’s desalination plant. But the plant produces just 155,000-gal/day and serves businesses and government buildings in the immediate Cruz Bay area. To put this in perspective, there are approximately 4,200 residents of St. John. Only 3 percent live in a household whose sole water source is the public water system.

With the limited reach and capability of the public water system, most residents and many businesses must rely on other water production means. The Virgin Islands National Park uses ground water wells as its water sources at Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay. The well water is processed through reverse osmosis plants and used in the immediate area. Both plants produce about 10,000-gal/day of potable water.

The water source for 81.1 percent of the island's households is from a cistern, tanks, or drums according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Rainwater is stored in cisterns and treated using a series of filters and chlorina­tion. The filters are arranged from largest to smallest, each removing contaminants of a different size. Unfortunately, there are no water filters available for purchase on St. John. Two of the EPA-recommended filter sizes are available on St. Thomas, the next island over. But the smallest filter, which removes cysts and protozoa (such as cryptosporidium and giardia), is not commercially available.
 


While St. John is beautiful beyond compare, it faces some ugly challenges. Space is constrained. Fresh water is limited. Parts and equipment are hard to come by. Operating costs are high.


 
Filters, along with the majority of techni­cal replacement parts, have to be ordered from the mainland, which presents a number of challenges. It is often difficult to find a company that will ship to the island, and those that do charge high ship­ping rates. And parts frequently can take upwards of five weeks to be delivered, not counting fabrication time for the part.

The Virgin Islands also have widespread issues with maintaining regulated systems to EPA standards. This is evidenced in EPA’s 2012 National Public Water Systems Compliance Report, where the territory is listed to have 300 regulated systems, and 156 of those systems had significant viola­tions. The 156 violating systems had a total of 273 significant violations.

 

WORKING TOWARDS SOLUTIONS

While St. John is beautiful beyond compare, it faces some ugly challenges. Space is constrained. Fresh water is limited. Parts and equipment are hard to come by. Operating costs are high.

Yet with support from the U.S. Public Health Service, Virgin Islands National Park and the surrounding community will continue to work together towards solu­tions to the potable water challenges.


 

Lt. j.g. Kelly R. Hoeksma, EIT, M.SAME, USPHS, is Project Manager and Civil Engineer, Southeast Regional Office, U.S. National Park Service; 340-690-2496, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..