Coral reefs, the foundation and primary structure of many highly productive and diverse tropical marine ecosystems, have been degraded by human activity in much of the earth's tropical oceans. To contribute to improved understanding of this problem, the potential relation between river sediment and nutrient discharges and degradation of coral reefs surrounding Puerto Rico was studied using streamflow, suspended-sediment, and water-quality data. Mean annual runoff for the 8711 km2 island is 911 mm, about 57% of mean annual precipitation (1600 mm). Mean annual suspended-sediment discharge from Puerto Rico to coastal waters is estimated at 2.7–9.0 million metric tonnes. Storm runoff transports a substantial part of sediment: the highest recorded daily sediment discharge is 1–3.6 times the mean annual sediment discharge. Hurricane Georges (1998) distributed an average of 300 mm of rain across the island, equivalent to a volume of about 2.6 billion m3. Runoff of more than 1.0 billion m3 of water and as much as 5 to 10 million metric tonnes of sediment were discharged to the coast and shelf.
Nitrogen and phosphorous concentrations in river waters are as much as 10 times the estimated presettlement levels. Fecal coliform and fecal streptococcus concentrations in many Puerto Rico rivers are near or above regulatory limits. Unlike sediment discharges, which are predominantly episodic and intense, river-borne nutrient and fecal discharge is a less-intense but chronic stressor to coral reefs found near the mouths of rivers. Negative effects of river-derived sediment and nutrient discharge on coral reefs are especially pronounced on the north, southwest, and west coasts.