Public Forum Addresses Water Issues

There can be no good news regarding this subject, but 200 foreigners gathered to hear it
BY: SHARON SHELDON

Water. The most basic necessity of life, and a precious commodity in Baja. Our little part of the planet receives a scant seven inches of rain annually, less than a third of what nature provides mainland Mexico.

Water and its availability, use and regulation were the topics of a public forum held May 16 at the Ejido headquarters in Todos Santos, sponsored by ACTS Baja (Asociación de Colonias de Todos Santos), a local non-profit. A host of Mexican officials and water professionals were invited to a give and take session, so residents could express concerns and ask questions of the experts.

The Todos Santos region, about 40 minutes north of Cabo San Lucas, includes the town of Todos Santos, and the communities of El Pescadero, Cerritos, Rancho Nuevo and Elias Calles, as well as the rural ranchos of those areas.

Hurricane Odile helped recharge the aquifers, but the Todos Santos area normally relies on rainfall in the Sierra Laguna mountain range to feed the four aquifers that span this district of southern Baja. And all four aquifers are in trouble, according to SAPA (the local water distribution and billing entity) official Geraldo de Jesus Unizón. “We are pumping out as much water as goes in,” he told the audience of nearly 200, predominantly Gringo landowners.

But that’s not the worst of it. We have enough water for 92 gallons per day per person, but in reality, consumption reaches about 211 gallons per day per person. And to top it off, of the 2,400 water users in Todos Santos alone, there are only 400 water meters. A combination of antiquated cultural beliefs, and operating inadequacies by the water authorities, has created a situation where only a relatively few households actually pay for water. “Many locals don’t pay because they believe water should be free,” Unizon said. Adding to this perception problem, since many people do not pay for their water use, it has little recognized value and tends to be wasted. One Mexican audience member referred to this as a “lack of conscience” by those who do not respect water conservation because they do not pay for water.

Ejido honcho Jesus Fruto Contreras informed the group that they couldn’t presently bridge the gap of non-metered users, because they not only lack an inventory of meters, but they also lack the budget to purchase them. Private citizens are not permitted to purchase their own meters.

Water loss due to poor infrastructure is another concern. The main source bringing water into town is only a four inch pipe; and one pump had broken down. Further, the distribution system does not have cut off valves to allow isolation of areas affected by road construction, which happens to be in full swing all over Todos Santos right now. Thus, frequent line breaks result in interruption of service.

There was also a lively discussion focused on the new Tres Santos master planned community being developed by MIRA Companies, and where it plans to get water for the huge project at Punta Lobos.  MIRA has not yet submitted a request for a water concession, according to Contreras.

Other questions focused on legal rights to water. “A lot of uncertainty exists about the source of water, and obligations,” said John Moreno, president of a local water association. Conagua is the federal Mexican government regulatory body that can grant concessions for both surface and subterranean water sources. What most people who buy land here do not realize is that purchase of land does not guarantee or convey any water rights. A concession for existing water, or permission to dig a well, must also be purchased through Conagua. Most concessions in this area are agricultural, as the Todos Santos region has always been agriculturally based (crops, cattle). The Ejido (communally owned land similar to U.S. Indian reservation land), controls the farming concessions. Legally, if a foreigner or Mexican national buys land within reach of the canal system, he can apply for free water if at least ½ hector is certified as agricultural use. Some Gringos, though, are sidestepping this requirement and taking water for domestic use.

Todos Santos does have a water treatment plant, but it may not provide a solution to water shortages. Ricardo Millan explained the water treatment plant is designed to clean 13 gallons per second, “but it is producing far less,” he said. Right now, the treated water is being used only for construction and road building sites, and some is injected back into the ground.

What are the solutions? Ideas expressed were to install and enforce the use of water meters; educate children to appreciate water as a resource; foster a better understanding of real estate laws; and improve the infrastructure of the distribution system. Of course these were foreigners making these suggestions to Mexican officials, so we know how far that will go.

Desalination plants (which remove salt and minerals from seawater) are a future possibility. According to Carlos Hernandez who represents a desalination company, there are five desal plants and 30 beach wells in the Cabo area. He says 120 countries in the world use desalinization, especially island territories. “Baja Sur is basically an island,” he says, “and we lack adequate fresh water sources.”

“It was good these speakers stepped up to the plate and talked to us,” said area resident Eric Engler. “The forum was a positive event for the community, to share information.”

Sharon Rorman Sheldon is editor of El Pescadero’s community Web site: www.PescaderoLife.com.