Puerto Rican conservation group works to preserve US's only Latino "National Treasure"
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Puerto Rican conservation group works to preserve US's only Latino "National Treasure"

Most visitors to the University of Puerto Rico’s Botanical Garden probably don’t know that, in addition to plants representative of the island’s native flora, there’s another national treasure a stone’s throw away, just beyond their line of sight.

That treasure is the Antiguo Acueducto — or Old Aqueduct — of Río Piedras, a 24-acre property with a dam, sedimentation and filtration pools, and several physical structures, including a valve house, employee lodging, and a hexagonal-shaped brick tower that is almost entirely intact. Constructed before the Spanish-American War of 1898, when Puerto Rico was transferred from Spain’s control to that of the United States, the aqueduct is the last remaining Spanish waterworks in the U.S. and its territories and commonwealths.

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This building served as a casa de maquinas when the aqueduct was still in operation. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

Based on its historical and cultural value, as well as the fact that the structures are endangered, the aqueduct was inscribed on the United States’ National Treasures list in September 2014. It is the only property on the list with a distinctly Latino history.

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The longevity of the aqueduct is remarkable; it was in use until the 1980s. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

The aqueduct and its structures have been under the care of Para la Naturaleza, an arm of Puerto Rico’s Conservation Trust, since 2005. The group, which identifies and restores properties of historical, cultural, and ecological significance to the island, has slowly been learning about the history of the site and doing what it can to preserve and protect it.

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Channels provided a path for water to flow into filtration pools. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

That work isn’t easy, however, since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a flood control project that would destroy the aqueduct. In its listing for the aqueduct, staff writing on behalf of The National Trust for Historic Preservation explain the plan and the damage it would cause:

“In the mid-1980s, the US Army Corps of Engineers initiated channelization work on the Puerto Nuevo and Piedras rivers, recommending as a flood control measure that their courses be straightened and confined to a concrete channel.

Over the last 30 years the Corps has pursued a phased approach with the San Juan Waterworks identified as the final segment of that larger project. Current plans call for placement of a high velocity boxed-channel across the Antiguo Acueducto destroying not only this National Register-listed resource, but the Río Piedras’ last remaining natural meander and its associated ecosystem.”

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A series of pipes and pumps pulled water from the Rio Piedras and into the filtration system, providing the first source of potable water in San Juan. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

The history that would be wiped out by the project is also considerable.

Planning for the aqueduct began in 1847, more than 50 years before the Spanish-American War and the U.S.’s acquisition of Puerto Rico. The original architect was engineer Juan Manuel Lombera, who took a grand tour of aqueducts on the U.S. mainland before designing the one in the Río Piedras section of San Juan. The aqueduct was one of the most significant pieces of infrastructure of its time, serving as the primary source of potable water in San Juan.

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Conservation and preservation officials still have much to learn about the aqueduct site. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

Para la Naturaleza celebrated the inclusion of the aqueduct on the National Treasures list, noting that it gives them credibility and leverage to advocate for the preservation of the site. Though there’s no formal timetable in place, the organization plans to treat the aqueduct and its structures as it does the other properties under its care, eventually opening it to the public for guided tours.

First, however, all of the installations need to be restored and secured, and the primary order of business is to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project from proceeding. Para la Naturaleza, in conjunction with The National Trust for Historic Preservation, has launched a petition on the Trust’s website, calling upon the Corps to redesign its existing plans and secure the permits that are required to stabilize the lower part of the aqueduct structure that remains visible and intact in the river.

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Some stabilization and preservation efforts are already underway. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

Officials say that they haven’t yet garnered enough support to persuade the Corps to change its plans, and they are hoping that the aqueduct doesn’t become another victim of the island’s tendency to tear down significant historical structures to make way for commerce. As an example, they cited the Art Deco era prison, Oso Blanco, which was demolished earlier this year after a vigorous fight to save it from the wrecking ball.