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Cuatro Cienegas: Pools of Life on the Verge of Death

Life at Mexico’s Cuatro Cienegas Basin has been present for the past 3.5 billion years, but it is meeting its biggest challenge yet: us.

Cuatro Cienegas Basin (CCB), a 40 kilometer long stretch of springs, streams, and pools, is a one of a kind oasis teeming with endemic microbial and aquatic life that is on the verge of permanently drying up and dying out in the desert of northern Mexico. It has been touted as the most diverse microbial site on the planet, and it hosts forms of life that have persisted over the past 3.5 billion years. The biggest threat to this hotbed of ancient life is the excessive water use practices of the industrial farming operations in the surrounding region. The aquifers are being depleted, the pools of the basin are drying up, and its endemic life is being pushed into extinction at an alarming rate.

On the front lines of the struggle to save the Cuatro Cienegas Basin is Valeria Souza, a molecular biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. As part of our series on CCB, Vagabond Journey interviewed Souza last November about the situation in Cuatro Cienegas. This year we’ve returned to get an update on how the situation has progressed. Pepe Gerson, our offbeat correspondent from Mexico, will take the reigns from here

MEXICO CITY- UNAM is a city within a city, the complex even has its own bus system. I make my way to the botanical gardens, it’s filled with cacti and succulents — an oasis surrounded by the dead grey concrete of the city. People are jogging, two 40 something dudes in grey suits sunglasses and ties play sparring.

I met Valeria Souza and we went outside to a picnic table to sit and talk. She works as a researcher in Cuatro Cienegas Basin (CCB), an endangered oasis in the Chihuahua desert that has extremely unique microbial life which shows glimpses into the early days of the earth and has untapped potential to be made into medicine and put towards myriad other human uses. She also works tirelessly to educate people about what is happening in CCB by visiting other universities, reporting to the media, attending meetings, holding conferences, and running specialized programs designed to make the very unique life there economically viable to the human population who live there. She’s very concerned about whats been going on in Cuatro Cienegas, and from what I learned from her I became concerned as well.

She opened up her laptop and showed me an article about water usage worldwide. “About 1 in 4 humans live in areas where water is used faster than it can be replenished naturally,” she said.

el churince nov. 2012_DCE

Cuatro Cienegas is a very good example for what happens when resources are unabashedly abused. The area is an oasis in what is otherwise desert, and the local farmers have been abusing the ground water supply to provide sustenance for their crops. They are using up the water in the aquifers far faster than it’s being replenished, and many of the pools of Cuatro Cienegas — which contain life that is not found anywhere else on the planet — are drying up.

(Read more about this on our series about Cuatro Cienegas Basin.) 

“So what’s happened in Cuatro Cienegas since last year?” I asked.

I was then told that Guillermo Barrios, engineer and president of the National Water Commission in CCB held a town meeting. The meeting was meant to inform the townspeople about the condition of the basin and the advancement of projects. He was more of a yes man, defending the free use of water by anyone regardless of volume and stating that everything is fine and on schedule when in fact everything was not fine. Projects to safeguard water were delayed, some by 4 years, and he was found to have taken 40 million pesos from project funds. But he will be leaving his position as president for the national water commission to run for mayor of Monclova (a sizable city). So at least he’s gone.

Valeria then showed me photos of what’s causing so much trouble at the basins. ¨These are the aquifer killers,¨ she said. On her laptop screen was a criss cross of tracks from a heavy excavator. She then showed me a photo of a muddied pump. The local subsistence farmers dig trenches maybe 2 feet wide by 1 foot deep to irrigate their crops. Larger enterprises are using pumps and dig trenches 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep (she showed me with her hands, I’m estimating the size by what she gestured). She then told me that much of the water goes to alfalfa producers that in turn supply the dairy giant Lala. There’s no control over how much water that can be taken, as the law permits free unlimited use for everyone.

It’s obvious that if you take more than what you replenish you come up with a deficit, but common sense isn’t as common as you would think . . . .

The pools of CCB are filled with both rain and the underwater reserves. It’s the natural water cycle at work. But humans are breaking this timeless cycle to accomplish things that couldn’t happen without extreme methods. In this case, trying to maintain huge herds of cattle in the dessert.

Before and after photo of Laguna Intermedia at Cuatro Cienegas Basin

Before and after photo of Laguna Intermedia at Cuatro Cienegas Basin

“In the past two years there has been a very harsh drought. That on top of the unrestrained use of water has caused the drastic changes you see in the photos,¨ Valeria explained. She showed me before and after pictures of the pools. One would make a really nice postcard of nice and blue water and happy fish playing with the reflecting lights. The other was of a dry dead fish and parched gravel.

Remember health class? This is Johnny before he did ____ and this is Johnny after ____ . These photos had that kind of impact. I didn’t want to drink milk anymore. I was angry at milk.

“The reserves have been depleted by about half what they were last year,” Valeria explained. “You can see the markers where they were last year in the picture and where they are now.¨

¨Some of these species of bacteria are endemic to only specific pools within this system,¨ She reasserted. She then showed me a picture of one pool which measured around 4 meters by 10. “There’s one bacteria that lives in only this little pool, in the whole wide world just in this place.¨

“What’s the importance in preserving these bacteria?¨

¨These guys can digest almost anything: petrol products, dioxins, heavy metals,” Valeria said. I look up at the big brown bubble over mexico city: it could use some of that. ¨They can also be used to create new antibiotics.”

“NASA has shown interest in Cuatro Cienegas,” she continued. Next on the screen was a shot of the surface of Mars. She pointed out the impressions of what is believed to have been puddles. Mars could have once had similar conditions as Cuatro Cienegas. The following picture wasn’t very positive: a blue line grid was placed on top of a place where there was once was a small reserve that had now gone dry. I got the idea that one day our planet could be as desolate and dry as Mars.

¨Using a molecular clock we’ve deduced that some of these species of bacteria have been around since the beginning of the history of life,” Valeria stated.

I had never heard of a molecular clock. ¨How does it work?¨ I asked

“Certain genetic traits have a very stable rate of change through time, so we can figure out the time of divergence from a relative.¨

The process is called speciation. It blew my mind how much sense it made. We can measure the ripples and waves in the gene pool (well I couldn’t, but Valerie could).

“So what can be done to protect these resources?¨

“If Lala stopped feeding their cattle alfalfa and has started to use the leftovers from ethanol processing plants (corn chaff),” she responded. “Most importantly, we have to spread the word about this.¨

“Do you have a prognosis, what would happen if things aren’t done?”

She responded with a very flat and disturbing tone that the ecosystem may only have a couple more years of life.

¨These bacteria are the reason why our sky is blue and not red,” she explained. “They have survived for the past 3 billion years but they have not survived man.¨

Please visit Valeria Souza’s blog. To read in Spanish go to En Cuatro Cienegas El Aqua lo es Todo in Spanish. She urges everyone to sign the online petition found there. 


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Filed under: Conservation, Environment, In-Depth Articles, Mexico, Water

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  • Mercury December 23, 2012, 2:30 pm

    Good article. This issue of aquifers being exhausted is a serious problem around the world. Wade is in China, which faces aquifer issues that dwarf those of mexico. Across the border in India, the farmers of punjab are now drilling wells up to 5000 feet deep using what had formerly been oil drilling technology. North Africa and the mid-east is also grappling with similar challenges. Even the U.S. is exhausting its Ogallala aquifer. Additionally, artesian wells and wetlands were once common across West Texas similar to CCB, but they have long since dried up. Mexico is only now catching up to Texas in that regard. Water usage looks set to be a very contentious issue going forward. Long-term desalinization maybe the only viable solution. But that is predicated on developing a nearly inexhaustible energy source as desalinization is very energy intensive.

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    • Wade Shepard December 23, 2012, 7:36 pm

      Yes, this is true. The ground surface is sinking in places all over the world. Unless viable desalinization methods arise it seems as if we may one day soon not be able to take drinking water for granted.

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