Learning about watersheds: Confusion and Focus

By Don Patterson 

Citizens arrived all day long. Some people came into my office requesting information, many with complaints, some trying to get out of paying fines and one with an accusation of corruption by the inspectors. Over the next year many more accusations of corruption came to my office.

During the first week I attended the public’s concerns from 8:30am until 4:30pm. For the first week, except for lunch, I never left the office. By the end of the first work week I realized that, apart from the very few true environmental concerns of these meetings, I was the city dog catcher, mortician and gardener. I kept asking myself, “What do these responsibilities have to do with the environment and ecology? How in hell was I going to have time to get to the bottom of the municipalities environmental problems as the mayor had ordered me?” The first opportunity came during the second week in the form of a memorandum from the secretary of the city council.

The memorandum from Cristobal requested a preliminary 3 year program for the department of the environment and ecology. I was finally given a platform to express our ideas for a vision and focus for the municipal environment and ecology. For me this was easy-the focus was water.

This was not something that occurred to me overnight. But it didn’t take a genius to understand the problem. I first became aware of the problems with the Upper Rio Laja Watershed and the Independence Aquifer in 2002. I went to a presentation in the Bellas Artes Theatre of Dr. Marcos Adrian Ortega from the University of Mexico. Given the scientific relevance of the study that he and his team produced I was flabbergasted and my mind became flooded with streams of questions.  The principal problem for the Upper Rio Laja Watershed I saw, at the time, was the speed with which we were extracting the ground water and its immediate and long range affects. We were extracting our groundwater much faster than nature could recharge it. Over a 20 year period, one farmer that I knew personally had to drill down over 120 meters to reach water. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that sometime in the future we would run out of ground water. A few years later, leaving his lecture to the professionals of the Medical Health Center, Dr. Marcos Adrian expressed his opinion on the subject to me. “Recharge is a myth.”, he said flatly after I broached the subject in his car.  I could certainly understand why he felt that way but I also felt that I should, as director of the environment and ecology, at least know where in the municipality the recharge rates were greatest and try to protect them. 

But it wasn’t just the quantity of water at our disposal it was also the quality.  By the time I took office, on Oct. 10, 2006, we were drilling down into and extracting water from deep within the aquifer. We were using water that had been percolating and accumulating the leaching of geological materials over centuries and millenniums. The water that we used to irrigate our crops, water our gardens, bathed in and drank, was beginning to show evidence of natural chemical contaminates like; fluoride, arsenic and sodium, among others.  What these contaminants are doing to the health of the citizens in the watershed, if not addressed, will have a profound effect on the cost of our future public health resources.

I spent the next couple of weeks researching available documents made by independent investigators, university investigators, as well as, the research and reports by different governmental organizations. Meanwhile, I found and took a free course for Watershed Ecology, on the EPA website.  At the same time I tried to find out what the local government’s concerns and actions were for the municipality.  One of my legal sources was Gerardo Arteaga.

Gerardo had made substantial progress in modernizing the department with the plan he proposed during the prior administration.  Many of his ideas I incorporated in my final draft. On the 14th of November, barely a month after taking office, Gerardo and I attended a meeting with the new director of the state department of ecology, the biologist Enrique Kano. We were the first municipality to present to the state government a municipal environmental plan – now my job was to find people and funds to finance it. First I needed people more knowledgeable than I to  help me enhance it and then to carry it out. Then there was funding. But I was not about to spend my wife’s tax money unless the funds satisfied three questions: What do we have? Where is it located? And, what condition is it in? If I didn’t know the answer to these three questions, how would I know where and how to spend and spread whatever funding I might find.

*Part VII of this series was published on Atencion May 26 edition, page 17.