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Environment & Science

Mexican state of Guanajuato suffering poor water quality, erosion issues

A herdsman drives cattle in Los Huesos, Guanajuato state, Mexico on April 26, 2013.
A herdsman drives cattle in Los Huesos, Guanajuato state, Mexico on April 26, 2013.
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The Mexican state of Guanajuato is more than 1,500 miles from the border, but it's long been one of the biggest sources of migrants to the U.S. Most people are coming here for an obvious reason: Jobs. But there's another potential factor at play: water, or the lack of it.

More than 20% of Mexico’s wells are in Guanajuato, including thousands of wells in the Silao-Romita aquifer. Now much of that land is sinking – as much as two to three meters a year.

Dr. Francisco Martínez González, a scholar of Geomatics and Hydrology at the University of Guanajuato, visited Cal State Fullerton recently. He presented research from a group of a dozen professors in Guanajuato, who study among them surface hydrology, geohydrology, and water pollution and treatment technologies.

He says aquifer pumping, reaching deeper and deeper into the earth, is pulling up water of worsening quality.

“Water is deeper, we have problems with natural pollution because heavy metals come from rock at that levels,” Martínez González says. “Now we are researching how to take out that contaminant.”

Guanajuato’s an agricultural region, with some industry. But Martínez González says among those who have priority for pumping there are corporations from outside the state.

“People from rural communities don’t have the ability or supply for water for making another economic activities,” he says.

“That’s why this is a factor for migration,” says Martínez González. “I know migration have many other factors but water is one of them.”

Immigration in Mexico is well-studied territory, and Guanajuato’s a big part of the story. That state has long contributed to northward migration from Mexico to the United States.

But the stories Dr. Martínez González and his team have heard, of people emigrating from Guanajuato because of water shortages, are anecdotal.

Mikael Wolfe is an environmental historian of modern Mexico. His book Watering the Revolution, forthcoming from Duke University Press, deals with agrarian reform in La Laguna, a region in the north of the country. Through his studies of Laguna, he’s been able to assemble a pretty clear picture of Mexico’s water management policies over the last century.

He says demand from diverse sectors of Mexican society has long outstripped supply. “By the 1930s you already have engineers working in the government warning that there’s potential problems,” says Wolfe.

In an article, he documents the close connection between public officials managing water and the industry that exploited it. “The secretary of agriculture got involved in the business of groundwater pumping,” Wolfe says. “That is, setting up a company, a Mexican subsidiary of a major us multinational of groundwater pumps, Worthington. And he himself proudly talks about his access to the president because of his political connections.”

Reform attempts, he says, met strong and diverse thirsts from all sectors of water users. “Prohibitions were put in place but they found ways to violate them or not comply with them,” Wolfe says.

Wolfe concludes that social, economic, political and ecological forces brewed together to render groundwater conservation “almost impossible in twentieth-century Mexico – a legacy that tragically persists to this day.”

Wolfe doesn’t work on Guanajuato, and can’t say whether the hypothesis that region’s scholars are advancing is valid. Still, “I think it’s fair to say that there’s a correlation between groundwater depletion and certain patterns of outmigration from the countryside,” Wolfe says.

“It basically goes like this. No water, no crops, no livelihood. Well, what happens? Probably, you have to migrate,” he says. 

[This post has been updated to reflect that La Laguna is a region, not a state.]