Watershed Project Aims to Improve Water Quality in the Territory

St. Croix watersheds (Screenshot image)

A FEMA-funded project begun in March is devising a watershed plan for the territory because heavy rainfall is not soaking into the ground in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Andres Torizzo, president of Watershed Consulting, told St. Croix businesspeople at a virtual town hall meeting on Tuesday.

A watershed is land that catches and channels rainfall and groundwater into a common outlet such as a gut or river and drains it into the sea.

The project designated St. Croix’s watersheds as Long Point Bay, Diamond, Bethlehem, Hovensa and Salt River Bay. Hovensa is the largest, spanning 12.7 square acres. Together, they make up 45 percent of the island.

St. Thomas watersheds make up almost 19 percent of the land area. They are the area around Cyril E. King Airport, St. Thomas Harbor and Bolongo Bay.

An illustration of a watershed (Screenshot image)

Managing storm runoff is a universal problem. In an area with natural ground cover, 50 percent of rainwater seeps into the ground, 40 percent is evaporation and water from plants and 10 percent runs off. When the area is covered by buildings, parking lots and other infrastructure there is more runoff, according to Torizzo.

Torizzo said that several issues negatively impact runoff and water quality, including flooding, sedimentation, solid waste and bacterial waste.

To begin the study, Torizzo said the project team – comprised of government officials, scientists and stakeholders – took a reef-to-ridge approach. They looked at water management from the sea to the mountains: current watersheds, infrastructure that impacts runoff, waste management and other factors.

“The holistic look is really the focus of our program,” he said.

Andres Torizzo talks about protecting the land from storm runoff. (Screenshot image)

The first steps in the action plan are research and identification of elements and resources. The data will then be accessed and ranked. The project team then will formulate models to solve problems and create a formal watershed plan.

Members of the project are the Department of Planning and Natural Resources Coastal Zone Management, Watershed Consulting, the GreenPiece, Center for Watershed Protection, Bioimpact, Inc., V.I. Conservation Society, University of Vermont Spatial Analytics Lab and OSL.

Other communities will be studied to learn the latest methods of protecting water supplies, and Virgin Islanders will be asked for their opinions.

“The benefit is being water-quality smart,” Torizzo said. “We’re looking for water training templates and will adapt what works elsewhere.”

Community input is very important, he said, and residents can help by reporting experiences on the website, such as clogged sewer lines, flooding or dumping on public or private land. The website provides updates on events and the project’s progress. It also provides information and ways to communicate with the team. They can also be reached on Facebook.

Residents can help by taking control of their properties and using vegetation for erosion control, especially on the hillsides. If there are drains or guts on their property, they can clear debris and build barriers to keep the drains open.

Several local and federal government agencies are joining efforts to work on educating the public about watersheds and how to improve the quality of infrastructure and the environment. The so-called Silver Jackets Project will include the Office of Disaster Recovery, VITEMA, DPNR, Public Works, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, University of the Virgin Islands, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and FEMA.

There were two virtual meetings on April 7 for St. Croix businesspeople and residents. Meetings for St. Thomas businesses will be at 11 a.m. on April 8 and for the public at 6:30 p.m. on April 8.