Feb 10, 2005, 2:13 PM
Post #1 of 22
It's not my intention to start an electronic war of words with the many loyal fans of Lake Chapala. But following is an article from the Wall Street Journal from about 18 months ago, that confirms what I saw when I was there. Maybe the lake has recovered since then. I hope so for the sake of all the people and animals affected.
September 7, 2003, Sunday
SECTION: NEWS;Pg. A-21
LENGTH: 1190 words
HEADLINE: Dwindling of Mexico's Lake Chapala alarms many; Drought, farming, development and political infighting blamed
BYLINE: Jim Carlton; THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
AJIJIC, Mexico -- When Dennis and Ellen Allison retired to this quaint fishing village in 1992, their new three-bedroom home was only a block from Lake Chapala, the largest freshwater body in Mexico.
The lake's edge is now about a mile away, having receded steadily during the couple's 11 years here. The newly exposed lake bottom is filling up with trees, brush and rows of corn planted by Mexican peasants who toil in white straw hats where fish used to swim.
"This isn't at all what we expected," said Dennis Allison, 69, who retired from an engineering job in Minneapolis.
Long considered a national treasure in Mexico, Lake Chapala in the state of Jalisco is shrinking so fast that many people here worry about damage to the environment and the Mexican economy. Since the 1970s, scientists say, the lake has lost about 80 percent of its intake water due to heavy development in central Mexico.
The lake is fed primarily by the Rio Lerma, which meanders through several hundred miles of arid farmland and supports about 11 million people along its banks. Farmers in recent years have taken to diverting almost all of the river's flow to irrigation, often with outmoded techniques that experts say use up much more water than necessary. At the same time, the bustling manufacturing center of Guadalajara lies downstream and draws on the lake as its principal source of water.
The Mexican government has done little to arrest the decline, partly because of political infighting, some officials say, but also because of the difficulties of addressing the region's cyclical droughts, which have been exacerbated by rapid population growth.
With the lake less 16 feet at its deepest, or about half its depth when the decline began in 1977, the shrinkage is affecting the local economy. Many U.S. and Canadian retirees who have settled here report their home values have declined as much as 5 percent in the past three years. Before that, home values were mostly rising, as some 10,000 U.S. and Canadian expatriates crowded the shores in recent decades to take advantage of Mexico's lower cost of living and a mild climate that the lake helped create.
The homeowners attribute the falloff in values mainly to the lake's decline, which not only detracts from the scenery but also makes the region hotter.
"If the lake goes, this will not be a nice place to live," said 68-year-old Joe De Leon, a retiree from Port Arthur, Texas.
He adds that his wife has given up her year-round gardening hobby because temperatures have climbed well past 90 degrees on many days when they used to hover more comfortably in the low 80s.
Since spending by the expatriates generates some $200 million annually, a fall in Lake Chapala's popularity could crimp an important revenue source in an impoverished region.
Meanwhile, economists say nearby Guadalajara soon may be unable to keep supplying enough water to all the factories that have set up shop in recent years. Already, the city of nearly 4 million has imposed water restrictions on certain neighborhoods because demand for water has outstripped supply by almost 40 percent. The population, which has jumped by nearly a million in the past decade, continues to expand.
"The low level of Chapala is the reason we are short of water," said Jose Macas, a local state water manager.
He adds that a dam is being planned on a nearby river to give Guadalajara another source of water.
Lake Chapala's plight has aroused international concern. Last year, the United Nations agreed to consider including the lake on its list of ecological places most critically endangered, an act that would make it eligible for international loan assistance as a World Heritage Site. A decision is expected in the coming year. The Living Lakes network, an association of groups coordinated by the Global Nature Fund in Radolfzell, Germany, also is considering adding Lake Chapala to its list of lakes worldwide that are either drying up or threatened by development. A decision is expected soon, which could pave the way for more global funds to help reverse the lake's decline.
Mexican officials first began noticing a problem in Lake Chapala in the early 1980s, when the lake's level plunged after a severe drought. Although the lake historically has risen and fallen with rain cycles, that time it didn't rebound when monsoons returned.
Needing outside technical help, the federal government called in scientists from Baylor University in Texas. Owen Lind, a Baylor biologist and head of a team that specializes in studying shallow lakes like Chapala, began flying down every few weeks to sample the water to see what impact the drop-off was having on its quality. His tests confirmed what some local fishermen suspected because of their declining catches: The lake was becoming a dead zone for marine life. The shallower water was becoming too muddy to produce enough algae for all the fish to eat. Meanwhile, pollution has been pouring in from farms, factories and cities upstream, according to Jose de Jesus Gonzalez, director of water research at the University of Guadalajara.
On a recent visit, Lind found little progress in curbing the pollution, despite the fact the Mexican government has taken steps such as constructing several new sewage-treatment plants in the area. Along the Rio Lerma outside the sleepy pueblo of La Piedad, for instance, Lind and his wife, Laura Davalos-Lind, another Baylor biologist, led a vanload of Baylor scientists to a new plant that workers said wasn't functional because of technical problems.
Numerous scientific meetings have been convened to review Lake Chapala's decline. In 1992, the state of Jalisco, where most of Lake Chapala sits, managed to persuade five states upstream to agree that more river water should reach the lake. But Mexico's National Water Commission, which sets usage in the river and pledged its cooperation at the time, Jalisco officials say, didn't begin ordering dam releases on the river to feed the lake until 1999. It has done so only a few times since.
Federal water officials deny they agreed to any special set-aside for Lake Chapala, and add they had to wait until rains could refill a dam sufficiently to release more water. They also attribute the lake's decline more to naturally occurring drought than man-made factors. The region has been locked in 10-year dry spell.
"We hope to be starting a wet cycle now," National Water Commission spokesman Eugenio Garcia said as a monsoonal storm darkened the sky outside his Guadalajara office.
He added the government is overseeing plans to restore the lake to a healthy level by 2010, such as by getting farmers to use more efficient irrigation practices.
Critics are skeptical, and say unless something happens soon the lake is in danger of becoming uninhabitable for most fish in as little as five years. Already, several species have been essentially wiped out, including a whitefish famed for its delicate taste.
"Time is awfully close to running out," said Lind as he guided his van past newly dug farms along the exposed lake bottom.