Grande plans for the Rio


Posted: 17 September 2003

Author: Fred Pearce

Twelve years of drought and vast irrigation schemes have left the Chihuahuan Desert dry. But new plans to grow desert crops and bring the water back to nature should help restore the region to its former glory, reports Fred Pearce.

If the deserts are advancing in northern Mexico, then farmer Humberto Lujan has a smart idea: "why not grow desert plants?"

Agavaceae plant
Agavaceae plant
Agavaceae plant, Chihuahuan Desert, Mexico.© WWF-Canon/Edward Parker

Sotol is his favourite. The old Indian name for agavacea, this desert plant produces a tasty alcoholic drink, rather like tequila. The drink, also called Sotol, is catching on, not just in the sleepy desert towns of northern Mexico but over the border in Texas and beyond. So Humberto wants to grow it.

He has had enough with the fantasies of farmers and engineers over the past 30 years, who thought the droughts of the Chihuahuan Desert should be no barrier to growing water-guzzling crops like corn and cotton.

Empty rivers

As a result of vast irrigation schemes, agriculture now takes up to 90 per cent of the region's water. Virtually none is left for nature, particularly in drought years. And for the last 12 years, that has meant every year.

The region's few rivers are emptying, including the Rio Conchos and the border river into which it drains, the Rio Grande, known in Mexico as the Rio Bravo. Maps show this river as flowing through the Chihuahuan Desert down the US-Mexican border to the Gulf of Mexico, but in reality, it has effectively been divided in two. Downstream of the Texan town of El Paso, it virtually dries up for more than 100 kilometres, becoming a collection of seeps and pools that locals call the "forgotten river".

Even the underground springs and water holes that used to keep flowing through the droughts are drying up. Farmers on both sides of the border are pumping ever more underground water to try and keep their crops growing. Across northern Mexico, water tables are crashing.

"Once we had a big lake of water under the desert, but now it is nearly empty," says WWF's Hector Arias.

Disappearing Species

But if farmers have it bad, nature has it worse. The Chihuahuan Desert's once unparalleled variety of cactuses and other desert plants is gradually disappearing. And the deer, bears, jaguars, and even grizzly bears that once inhabited the region are long gone.

As the rivers dry, fish have disappeared too. "We have lost at least a third of our endemic fish," says Hector. "And dried up wetlands and lagoons can no longer play host to migrating birds."

The fallout from irrigation fantasies is all too evident in the badlands around the town of Ojinaga, close to the US border. Three-quarters of the irrigation district is now waterless, its canals empty thanks to a decade of drought and low flows in the River Conchos. The waterless fields are being reclaimed by the desert.

The exception is Humberto's small experimental plot, where he grows mesquite - a tough little desert shrub that produces good, hard timber and foliage that provides a high-protein fodder crop. The sotol plant will soon also be part of his trials, along with ornamental cactuses and desert herbs like oregano and rosemary.

"There are good markets for these crops," says Humberto. "They need far less water than corn or any of the other conventional crops grown round here." They also fetch better prices than the old crops, which have fallen victim to cheap imports from big, mechanised farms over the border in the US.

Indeed, many ornamental cactuses are so valuable that there is a thriving and illegal business in cactus rustling out in the desert. So why not grow them legally?

Reviving the desert

In a time of ecological and economic crisis, Humberto believes he has seen a viable future for farmers here, and one that will revive the ecosystems of the Chihuahuan Desert too.

Hector Arias is also plotting a new future for this desert region and its rivers. Co-ordinator of a cross-border WWF programme to revive the Chihuahuan Desert, his 20-year plan is to restore the desert centres by bringing back the water.

"We want governments to recognize that the environment is both a source and a user of water," he says. "At present every last drop is allocated to farmers. It's just not sustainable."

The plan is making headway. Mexican legal reforms mean that the environment will soon have a voice at the table when decisions are taken about water policy.

Wasted water

And under an ambitious new plan now being trialed in southern Chihuahuan town of Saltillo, 5,000 water customers are voluntarily paying a few extra pesos on their monthly bills to help protect aquatic ecosystems. "We want to extend the levy to the whole region," says Hector.

Meanwhile, his WWF colleagues over the border in Las Cruces, New Mexico, also have plans to push for reform to the water laws that give farmers the right to take water from the rivers effectively in perpetuity.

"The key to providing water for nature in the desert is to curb the unsustainable demands of farmers," says Hector. "Greater efficiency on farms may help. "But there is a limit to how much can be done. And much of the water "wasted" on irrigation projects is not totally lost as it trickles through the soil to replenish underground water reserves, albeit in a somewhat degraded or polluted form."

The long-term solution, he says, is likely to lie in initiatives like Humberto Lujan's new crops. They are far more suited to a desert environment. For Hector, who has lived and worked in the deserts of northern Mexico for most of his life, the message is clear: "If we can restore the water, we can restore ecosystems in the desert."

Fred Pearce is a freelance journalist

Related links:

WWF's Global 200 ecoregions - The The Chihuahuan Desert

WWF Mexico

The Chihuahuan Desert is one of the most biologically rich and diverse deserts in the world, rivaled only by the Namib-Karoo of southern Africa and the Great Sandy Desert of Australia. It stretches nearly 630,000km² from the Mexican plateau into southeast Arizona, across New Mexico and west Texas in the US, and is framed by the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre systems. One of WWF's Global 200 ecoregions - a science-based global ranking of the world's most biologically outstanding habitats and the regions on which WWF concentrates its efforts - the desert is an apparent paradox, important for both terrestrial and freshwater habitats.