The alluvial aquifer in the area of Santa Isabel is located within the South Coastal Plain aquifer of Puerto Rico. Variations in precipitation, changes in irrigation practices, and increasing public-supply water demand have been the primary factors controlling water-level fluctuations within the aquifer. Until the late 1970s, much of the land in the study area was irrigated using inefficient furrow flooding methods that required large volumes of both surface and ground water. A gradual shift in irrigation practices from furrow systems to more efficient micro-drip irrigation systems occurred between the late 1970s and the late 1980s. Irrigation return flow from the furrow-irrigation systems was a major component of recharge to the aquifer. By the early 1990s, furrow-type systems had been replaced by the micro-drip irrigation systems. Water levels declined about 20 feet in the aquifer from 1985 until present (February 2003).
The main effect of the changes in agricultural practices is the reduction in recharge to the aquifer and total irrigation withdrawals. Increases in ground-water withdrawals for public supply offset the reduction in ground-water withdrawals for irrigation such that the total estimated pumping rate in 2003 was only 8 percent less than in 1987. Micro-drip irrigation resulted in the loss of irrigation return flow to the aquifer. These changes resulted in lowering the water table below sea level over most of the Santa Isabel area. By 2002, lowering of the water table reversed the natural discharge along the coast and resulted in the inland movement of seawater, which may result in increased salinity of the aquifer, as had occurred in other parts of the South Coastal Plain.
Management alternatives for the South Coastal Plain aquifer in the vicinity of Santa Isabel include limiting groundwater
withdrawals or implementing artificial recharge measures. Another alternative for the prevention of saltwater intrusion is to inject freshwater or treated sewage effluent into wells along the coast. A digital ground-water flow model was developed to provide information for water managers to evaluate some of these alternatives. After calibration of the ground-water model to historical data, four simulations of ground-water management strategies were performed: ground-water conservation, surface infiltration over existing agricultural fields, or infiltration along streams and canals, or injection wells along the coast.
Simulations of four alternative water management strategies indicate that current condition of water levels below sea level near the coast can be reversed to raise water levels above sea level by either: (1) about a 27 percent reduction in 2003 ground-water withdrawal rates; (2) application of about 1,700 million gallons per year of artificial recharge over more than half of the current agricultural areas; (3) injection of about 3 million gallons per day (1,095 million gallons per year) of freshwater or treated wastewater in wells distributed along the coast; (4) injection of about 3.5 million gallons per day (1,280 million gallons per year) of freshwater or treated wastewater in wells distributed along canals and streams.