The Future of Baja’s Water

January 3rd, 2006 by David

    It is dry here in Baja. You may have noticed that all plants in my photos are cacti. I have not worried once about rain, and Baja’s cities average below 10 inches of rain per year. Where does the water come from that flushes the toilets in these firehouses?

Daniel and Fernando show me pumps in La Paz
Underground water for...grapefruit

   In southern Baja, almost all the water comes from underground aquifers. Two locals, Daniel and Fernando, drove me around La Paz yesterday and showed me where pipes go many tens of meters beneath the ground to find freshwater. Pipes also lead out of the town, where they draw underground water from farther away. In Ciudad de Constitución, where I was a few days earlier, the corn fields and grapefruit orchards also get their water from underground. The goat that I watched get slaughtered ate alfalfa watered from this source. Loreto, where I spent Christmas night, also relies on underground water.

    All these water sources sit close to the ocean, and, somewhere beneath the ground, there is a boundary between ocean saltwater and freshwater. If water is pumped faster than rain recharges it, saltwater gradually creeps landward, and, eventually, the well draws saltwater and becomes unusable, a common phenomenon known as salt water intrusion. This has already happened to a number of wells in La Paz, as well as all the wells in Loreto. Loreto now pumps all of its water from a valley far away.

La Paz Shoreline

    With climate change, the ocean is going to rise due to the melting of glaciers as well as the fact that water expands when warmer. It is expected that with a 2 to 3 degree Celsius warming this century, the ocean’s surface will likely rise half a meter this century, and much more in the following centuries (the rising oceans will be another entry here). If the ocean level is higher, the underground boundary between salt and freshwater will move inland, increasing the risk of salt water intrusions. Also, in a warmer earth, the crops near Ciudad de Constituión will require more water because evaporation will increase, thus requiring more water to be drawn from beneath the surface.

    But, with a changing climate, you may say, there might be more rainfall. This is possible. The climate models are not good at predicting future rainfall, especially on a scale as small as Baja California. For the general region of Central America and Mexico, however, the models seem to show, in general, a decrease in precipitation toward the end of the century. More likely, we will see more extremes – both more droughts and more floods, making it more difficult to predict water resources from year to year.

I'll plant the cactus field right next to the corn field...

    Unfortunately, the water sources of Baja will probably be subject to overuse long before climate change has a large effect. It seems that the water is already being used unsustainably – one study shows that Loreto has only a few years left on its second aquifer before the water runs out. And the population is growing rapidly. Whether it is second homes in Loreto for foreigners or a huge influx of people from the Mexico mainland to La Paz, the population growth will result in need for more water. Cabos San Lucas, the town on the southern tip of the peninsula (which I am not visiting), already has an expensive desalination plant to provide water for visiting tourists. Factors other than climate change currently have a much bigger effect on Baja’s water, and these problems need to be addressed now. It is likely that people are simply wasting water and not paying the full price of water. Nonetheless, climate change will only worsen the problem.

Water is for everyone, care for it

    While it may be economic to run desalination plants for tourists, it is unclear how the people of La Paz, and especially its poorer citizens, will fair once they have to pay for water. It is also unlikely that agriculture will be economic with expensive water. I wonder what the future of Ciudad de Constitución, a city built on agriculture and not tourism, will be once the wells turn salty. I wonder if future cyclists will see goats at the roadside or enjoy fresh grapefruits. And, to read more about climate change and agriculture, you will have to wait until later in Mexico….

5 Responses to “The Future of Baja’s Water”

  1. Don says:

    Hi Dave:
    Wow, serious water issues. I’ve read about salination of ground water in Australia, where it’s a major problem. That stream you’re standing in is, I assume, pumped from underground and is an irrigation ditch? The underground aquifers can’t last long at that rate.
    There are more efficient ways to dispose of human excrement than using water to flush it away in water toilets. Perhaps those better methods will catch on in the near future in parts of the world like this.
    Love your fields of cacti and corn–I think the cacti look healthier.
    –don

  2. karen says:

    HI, sort of depressing to think that the unbridled use of water so inefficiently is sure to cause dramatic cutbacks for those that need it the most.I wonder how much of the water is going to uncovered/unshaded swimming pools and golf courses. Why can’t tourists go and enjoy the country as it really is instead of demanding “unnatural” accomidations in the areas they go to.How someone can say they went to a certain area of the world and never set foot outside the tourists’ compounds is beyond my understnding. Hope you are being treated well out the their real world ( the natives). Any luck on your boat ride and catching a fish for me????? Talk to you soon..thinking of you.

  3. Kay Bargmann says:

    Hi Dave,
    We just returned from Los Cabos, where development is going absolutely crazy. The first thing you think of is, where is the water coming from??? As you mentioned, there are one or two desalinization plants in use to supply water. And, we were told that development is going to be eventually limited by available water.
    Prices seem to be higher there for everything than they are on the west coast of Mexico. This may be in part due to the cost of water. I don’t know, but this may already be affecting the local citizens.
    I saw an article about you in the SF Chronicle today, and I was moved to check out your website. I’m very impressed.
    Hang in there! We’ll keep watching your progress.
    -Kay

  4. karen says:

    Well, it sounds like you have better bike legs than sea ones. Mal der mer is not a fun thing. I have always had a love affair with the wind. Such a clean, unrealized source of power still untapped.I will forgive you for not getting my fish, kind of hard to do when you are “under the weather”. (grin)
    It is always an eyeopener to find wonderful people all around you if you only take the time to listen to them. That is one of the things that is making your trip such a joy. I applaud you and your commitment.Know that there are a lot of us keeping you in mind and following your trip with great interest. There is so much attention spent on oil when, if you can’t get enough water to drink and grow your food, the price of gas pales in comparison. Thank you for bringing attention to this critical issue. Bet you are glad to be back on dry land!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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