The Water Situation in San Miguel de Allende

Juan Manuel Huerta y Agustín Madrigal. Introduction: Patricia Cardona

Welcome everyone to the University of León , which has so generously opened the doors for the Water Dialogues, one of the most ambitious projects of the water awareness and conservation campaign: AguaVida SMA, driven by the Citizen´s Observation of Water and Sanitation (OCAS – Observatorio Ciudadano del Agua y Saneamiento).

Because of the brilliant career of Dr. Juan Manuel Huerta and the tireless commitment of Agustin Madrigal on watershed restoration, today’s dialogue promises to be intense and revealing.

Dr. Huerta is a visionary who early in his career foresaw that the problems that afflict the world require an integrated and long-term solution. That was how he specialized in the application of Systems and Control Theory for building integrated socio -environmental models to examine the evolution of reality in the course of time.

Dr. Huerta is currently advisor to the Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics of Mexico (INEGI ) and the State Water Commission of Guanajuato. He has advised the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Department of Defense and U.S. Department of the Interior. He has also been advisor of OPEC and UNESCO, the Government of Guanajuato and the National Water Commission and other government agencies of Mexico .

Dr. Huerta has been a professor in the School of Electrical Engineering at Northeastern University in Boston and the graduate program in Engineering from the Technological Institute of Monterrey in Nuevo Leon and Mexico City and since 2007 is a ​​member of The Climate Project, now called The Climate Reality Project organization headed by former U.S. vice president Al Gore.

As moderator of this first Water Dialogue, Agustin Madrigal Bulnes, with more than 20 years working on environmental projects in the region, is co – founder of the organization Save the Rio Laja , AC since 2000 and director since 2007. Currently involved in the project called Watershed and Cities, driven by the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature, he also collaborates on local, state and regional projects with the Agricultural Service of the United States and the North American Wetlands Act of the Wildlife and Forest Service of the US as well. He also collaborates with the National ForestryCommission of the Mexican Federal Government , where projects are carried out in the sub-basins of Cañada de la Virgen and San Marcos River in the municipality of San Miguel de Allende; sub basin of the Neutla Dam in the municipality of Comonfort and sub watershed Peña Alta in the municipality of San Diego Union.

Dr. José Huerta: These dialogues are important. The water issue that started as theory is now a reality. It bothers some. The International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis is a corporation created during the cold war between the USA and Russia. The headquarters is in Luxemburg and it has an important statement that reads as follows: “The 70 trillion of the global economy dominates all planetary systems such as carbon, hydrogen and the water cycle, so we are forced to carry out a planned activity to care for those systems”.

This organization is serious with 21 country members and is a clearing house for water models. If anyone of you feel desperate because of the water situation in Guanajuato, you are not the only ones. The whole world has this situation. In the US we have 1,540 counties and 22 states with draught. 

So I will be talking about a prospective which is an integrated vision of water studies integrated by demography, education, labor and productive activities. Why? Because these are the processes demanding water. We already know we have weather changes. It impacts the rain patterns: heavy rains in short spans, followed by very long dry periods.

We have to study the dynamics of water, especially in agriculture. The surface water is scarce and so is the ground water. The water deficit keeps growing and this has to change. We have to change the crops in agriculture and other activities in the states.

I studied very closely the water situation in Mexico and have lots of news from different newspapers. One article really surprised me because it mentions one of the regions that has more water problems is the Laguna Basin (poner lugar). We have a lot of alfalfa crops there because of the milk factory, Lala. According to the statements not long ago the Durango state governor said that the water from one of the dams known as, Francisco Zarco, is going to be used as drinking water. It´s not going to be used for the alfalfa crops any more. That is a big issue because they will have to import the alfalfa from other regions of Mexico. If they are lucky enough to find enough alfalfa the price of milk is going to increase.

We have studied the basins of Guanajuato: Laja/Allende and at the south of the Lerma river, as well as the north known as, the Dry Lagoon. We need to change the way we are using water. This is a fascinating topic because change is quite difficult to achieve. It seems logical in a national and international level, but there are political and economic pressures to repeat the same practices. And this happens throughout the world. So this is a new phenomenon we have to face.

Al Gore said, in his Climate Reality Project, that what has to be done in every country is different because we react in a different manner to the news. In Guanajuato this topic has been studied for twelve years. It´s the region with more studies on surface and ground water as well. It´s the only state that has twenty two different models throughout the entire area and we have precise information on the demand and recharge that is needed.

Public officials from other states come to Guanajuato to ask for information on how we are doing things here and it´s because we started with a project 20 years ago titled Guanajuato XX Century. They want to know how politicians are going to handle this throughout the systems (where the agriculture, demography, water, academic sectors are all interconnected). Something very typical in our way of thinking is that water has only been an addition to something else… When there is a financial project no one cares about water because you buy water and that is the way most people think. “Water? We´ll get it somehow”.

How much is water worth? A friend of mine says that the most expensive water is the one that is nonexistent and that is the way we are going to end up if we don´t change things.

Farmers are not worried about how much water they use because they only worry about maximizing their production and sometimes they need to overuse the water there is available. So we are all to blame if we have not visualized the importance of water as a resource for everybody.

Another thing we do is create models with circles representing cause and effect. Carl Sagan said in 1997 that if we have a complex system as a basin we must know its behavior in all its facets to understand it better. We can identify and modify it for our benefit. That is our role.

We have to know from the quantity point of view which activities are carried out currently and are modifying the ground and surface water resources.

We also have to analyze how those resources have actually changed.

Many say that most of the aquifers in Guanajuato are overexploited. I would say that is true everywhere in Mexico. If we manage them from the quality point of view, if we only describe them by their qualities, we would never know for sure what´s happening. We wouldn´t know quantitatively how much water we have left. It´s like having a bank account where you must check the balance every day to see how much you have left for the daily needs.

The surface water in Guanajuato has changed drastically. The greenhouse gases, the human activity and the climate changes with heavy rains in a short span followed by two or three weeks without rain are having tremendous impact. Where there used to be rain we now have draught and vice versa, floods where there was no rain before.

The rainy seasons are now totally erratic. That changes totally the way you can manage surface water. We cannot build large dams anymore because those were built in the old fashioned way when we had rain statistics with a constant presence with peaks and lows and we worked with averages. But that has changed.

We live in places where we should not live because there is not enough water. If we look at Mexico, most of water resources are located below 800 meters above the sea level. But most people live above, so we have an unbalance that´s always been there and now it´s heightened.

We also observe a change in the use of land. If I analyze what´s going on in Comonfort, I don´t have enough rain to do things there and there are seasons in which I can´t pump water from wells. So I have to find another activity to make a living. A piece of land that used to be a water district, is now used for different activities, such as a small restaurant or mechanic shop. You see all these businesses by the road and their owners are waiting for the rainfall in order to start their farming activities.

Traditionally in Mexico there was an escape valve which meant moving to the US to work there. But this is now closed down and in the future it´s going to present interesting changes because in the US the pyramid population is also changing.

INEGI created a new terminology which is “middle cities”. These are not rural areas or urban areas either. It´s important to analyze them because they have already received a name and status in the government budget. They need sanitation and other services. So as you can see, the situation is complex with several facets moving at their own pace.

This doesn´t mean that we can´t fix it. My message is that it is very important to participate and get involved in the solution. Not long ago, the newspaper El Correo published an article saying that Guanajuato has only 14 years left of water. It means that we have less than 14 years left to change things.

This information has already been passed to the state governor and city mayors and I think the role they play in the water sector is going to change. Now the water sector is no longer isolated and it will be able to modify other sectors such as demography, productivity and the life in our state. But this is not going to happen if we as citizens do not participate in the process.

Right now we don´t have an integrated vision of the basins. If I have a long term integrated vision I can manage better the water resources. If we have an organizing team that tells us how to move forward 20 or 30 years into the future in a sustainable way, we need precise actions now.

Agustin Madrigal: It´s the first time that the state government is acknowledging the fact that we have this situation. We believe that now the decisions for the future in regards to strategic development are going to be made from a different point of view. Dr. Huerta, you have made studies in Guanajuato as well as many councils and Dr. Adrian Ortega since 2002 that we should go back to those studies waiting to be retaken to work from a strategic point of view.

The first studies in the region concerning ecosystems, wild flora and fauna were carried out in 1989 when El Charco del Ingenio was founded. The first protected natural area is the Santa Rosa Mountain Range and the watershed therein. That was the first project that the state government created for civil participation and nonprofit associations to manage. Our situation in San Miguel de Allende is linked with those ecosystems. Wild flora and fauna are the most important resources that have been first researched. If we didn´t have the participation of the individuals and farmers, the projects would make no sense. So the first studies for environmental education that were oriented to farmer´s training, and those that have to do with birds were done at the Santa Rosa Mountain Range. It was actually fostered by the Audubon Society in San Miguel de Allende and with all that information farmers were trained to monitor birds.

This is important because if we know what birds are doing we learn about ecosystems.

There are also many important projects and research materials. Via Orgánica and Rotary Club have made great advances as well as the environmental program promoted by FAI. Training young children is fundamental. I´m saying this because many of the young people here should get to know the groups (that work on water issues) and work with them because there are simple things that we can do that have a positive impact and are fundamental for our locality.

Dr. Huerta: The work that we´ve done include mathematics and this wouldn´t have been possible if we didn´t have all the information and data that the state of Guanajuato has provided from the many projects carried out. In a mathematical model you are assuming the policies that will solve the issue. But these policies need to be carried out and like Agustin said, there are projects that have been useful but have not been enforced and with this new initiative we should take them into consideration for this new strategic long term vision that we need.

Agustín Madrigal: OCAS, as a coalition (of citizens and NGOs), has proposed to maintain a permanent communication with the authorities because we believe it is fundamental to change policies and create strategies together with the three levels of government. Our coalition has already made a presentation to the members of the City Hall and Sapasma Board and we know that the Rotary Club is working with them and has created a network. We know now the real state of our aquifers and I believe that now we have enough scientific and technical information to make the right decisions.

Question from the Audience: We need to have a permanent dialogue with the authorities since it is the basis for any arrangement. Dr. Huerta, you were talking about a mathematical model integrating all the elements in order to approach the systems so as to correct what is going wrong. And you talked about concrete sustainable projects. Are there any projects currently related to the quality and quantity of water available for human consumption in Guanajuato and specifically San Miguel de Allende? Your model has this detailed information?

Dr. Huerta: The model right now only provides quantities, even though we are already working on the qualities, but we don´t have that information yet. It is very hard to define how much water is going to be used for human consumption and how much water is going to be used for another type of consumption. We know 80 percent of the water is used for agriculture. I have to stress that the National Water Laws say that water for human consumption is going to be the number one priority. If there is little water in an aquifer, it´s going to be for human consumption only.

However, I´m skeptical because an aquifer is very large with a high number of wells so it´s hard to really have a control of that. That´s why it´s important that all the consumers create associations in order to manage and control this. There are several councils working on this but we need more data of all the work that has already been done, like Agustin said. We are not going to measure everything again and again.

The information that is provided has been the basis to build the model in order to know how the water bodies are going to be used. But, at the end of the day, the ones that are going to decide what´s going to be done with the aquifer are the people. The authorities can´t say how it´s going to be used. Aquifers are large, they can´t be defined that easily and the consumer is the one that needs to be aware of the situation, make reports of how the water is being used, no to scold the farmer or to stop him from doing his work, but to know how much water is left in the aquifer.

Agustín Madrigal: The Upper Rio Laja Basin has eleven municipalities, three of them are inside the basin: Dolores, San Miguel de Allende, San Diego de la Unión. The information provided by Dr. Ortega from 2000-2002 is the only one we have in order to know what´s going on. In 2008 there was another study from the University of San Luis Potosí and the municipality. We learned that 101 sources of drinking water were examined. It was determined that 21 localities had fluoride contamination and that´s why the Health Department provided water tanks right away.

We had a meeting with the Water State Commission and we asked for data about water quality. They said that in the Upper Basin they don´t have enough information as they do have for El Bajío, the Valle de Santiago area where there is a lot of agriculture so they have a better control there.

We have a meeting tomorrow with the Laja River COTAS (Consejo Técnico de Aguas y Saneamiento) to learn more about it. The municipality has done some follow-ups with the Department of Ecology on the sampling of water and SAPASMA has done this as well. So we need to put together all that information. And this is where the nonprofit associations come to play.

Question from the Audience:
Once we have the information and if this information is not critical, which would be the concrete solutions?

Dr. Huerta: It´s a little premature to say which would be the priority. We need to distill the information. Maybe you already have these solutions in your projects and all we need to do is learn more about them, rescue them, reevaluate them.

For example, when you do the metering of a well you must take into account that they are expensive. In the southern part of the state, because we have the largest agricultural sector there, we have done the metering and sampling, but this is not necessary everywhere. The important thing is how often we do this so we can analyze the changes from one sample to the next.

Agustin Madrigal: There is a strategic management plan directed by the University of Querétaro with FAI and we were asked to participate. The results are about to be published. They provide specific projects for restoration and rehabilitation of specific places and these are fundamental strategies.

Question from the Audience: You were saying that the Water State Commission director announced we have 14 years of water and the world is going to end. The governor and municipal presidents that were present during this announcement, do they understand what this means? They will have no other choice but to get more information so they understand it as soon as possible in order to make changes. Can you provide a specific case of the recharge of an aquifer that can be used as information for these politicians?

Dr. Huerta. Yes, there are examples of aquifers that have been recharged. Some of the problems we face in Guanajuato is that our aquifers, due to the quality of the rock, have a very long recharge span as opposed to the Yucatan Peninsula where they have a very permeable rock. When it rains, the aquifer right away raises its level. I know there are projects in Guanajuato to recharge aquifers because water needs to be filtrated beforehand. If we introduce contaminated water with a chemical product the rest will be contaminated.

I think the main issue here is to be happy and optimistic because our new governor has accepted the topic and this had not happened before. This is important. How long is it going to take for this information to have a positive impact on the Laja/Allende Basin? I don´t know, but I do believe that if you all get organized the time will be shorter as if you proceed in an isolated manner.

Agustín Madrigal: There has been a lot of talk about the recharge of the aquifers since the year 2000. There were sites or locations found in Santa Rosa and El Cubo Mountain Range. You know that our aquifer has fossil water, and more than analyzing the recharge of the aquifer, which would be very expensive, we need to think about the water that infiltrates very slowly because we do have filtration of water in the protected areas used for such a purpose. We call this “water in transit” or slow water and it is beneficial for the wild flora and fauna and for the farmers.

We should focus on those solutions and accept that we have to take realistic actions. For example, the erosion and gravel problem in San Miguel de Allende needs to be stopped in order to provoke the infiltration of the slow water into the aquifer.

Some people say the Realito Dam is going to be the solution because we are going to have water in Celaya, San Miguel and maybe San Luis. But some of us feel that more than a solution it´s going to be a problem. It´s going to represent great stress and changes in the aquifers.

If we analyze the aquifer we need to take into account several factors such as geophysical aspects. Dr. Ortega said twelve years ago that we should seek for other alternatives: use surface water, avoid erosion, close down wells and we have no other choice than to work with the farmers because they use 80 percent of the water. But agriculture also provides jobs. So we must seek other options such as irrigation technology changes and changes in crops. We need to put all the ideas together.

Dr. Huerta: Politics is like a diet. You want to lose weight but what you really need is commitment. Human organizations are always very frustrating because you hear 20 different opinions on how things should be done.

But if you keep up, that´s it. It´s like Churchill said: never quit because if you have the energy, the will and the desire, things will happen and you find the adequate group to work with. Authorities are not untouchable. They have to respond to democratic demands. If you do it in any other way you end up being a terrorist.

There are so many technologies that can be adapted to the variability of the climate. Water catchment is one solution. It´s just a cultural issue that we need to start with. We also need to be totally informed on the quality of the water. If there is a question about it, go to the State Commission. Organize and put together all the projects. This cannot be done by one person only. It needs the effort of all sectors of society.