Fighting the Desert Sand for Water.
Rain changes the desert.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Water. The Baja Desert Fights for Every Drop!
As man continues his suicidal increase in world population, the resources he depends on decrease in lock-step. Oil is the one that occupies all our attention at the moment, but, in the last analysis we could exist without petrol and all the by-products of the glutinous, overpriced fossil fuel.
The one resource we are denuding too fast for safety is water: and nobody ever seriously suggests any life form can do without that for long.
In many places, such as Baja South in Mexico, potable water exists but well below the surface in aquifers which are refreshed by seasonal rains and the run-off from nearby hills and mountains. In the rest of the country, water is a worry, too, but in mainland Mexico there are many rivers with pipelines snaking out of them to begin the long journey to Mexico City where 25 million people need a drink ever day as well as water for a host of reasons.
Baja California has a problem that has been around since the time of the Jesuit priests who were forced into building missions around the far-flung tiny wells and streams that do exist in dubious permanency. There, they built stone places of worship, tended a small garden of vegetables and planted grape vines to supply their only luxury - the yearly wine pressing. They would put in place a clever system of drains and small aqueducts to irrigate and supply water close to their modest homes. But the Peninsula has very few rivers and natural reservoirs: in the South, there are only two towns with permanent streams - San Ignacio and Mulege, the rest of the state has to depend on any water that can be held after the rains (if there are any in a given year), or that which can be pumped from meters underground.
I used to live in one small, ex. mining town that was a microcosm of the problems all over the rural sectors of the state. There was just one source of fresh water that came from a well sunk about 30 meters into a large aquifer, two miles along the old road out of town into the hills. It normally only supplied the precious fluid once per day and then for only about three hours, all depending on the level in the aquifer. The old electric pump was enclosed in a pen of chicken wire and home to about 7 mongrel dogs who set up an unholy racket when anyone approached, hurling themselves at the wire and snarling like so many hounds of hell. Once they actually got out, they returned to tail-between-the-legs, “don’t kick me” mode, poor things. Manuel, who managed the pumping operation for the village for a small stipend, brought them odds and ends of food when there was any. (He told me they stopped the villagers stealing and selling the pumping engine!!). Anyone who has not lived with Mexico’s rural poor cannot imagine the level of deprivation (nor understand why these people seem so happy!). After living in awful, disgusting, mean-minded, rip-off Britain for 7 years, I will tell you: they are happy because less is more...go figure! (Yes, I am going back this year!!)
As I said, there is usually plenty of water at different depths under the desert all over this area. And, yes, modern geo-phys. can tell us where it is. Also, modern drilling equipment can get down there, through sand and rock - even the tough granite cap that keeps more modest and older equipment out - well, you know it, if there was oil down there the place would be a hive of dinosaur-like pumps going night and day recovering oil from thousands of feet beneath the surface, if that’s what it took! Thank the fickle finger there is none otherwise this place would be another Texas...the ‘practice hell on earth! (But, according to Hubber, Austinstar, Austin, Texas is a great place with cool people and has the brightest stars in the known universe! So Texas ain't all bad, folks).
What is obviously missing is the money in South Baja to afford these expensive rigs and surveys. Anything less than top drilling equipment has been defeated nearly everywhere by the granite barrier; rusting and distorted drilling pipes stick out of the sand showing where this equipment gave up the ghost through the last 100 years or so: first, in the days of the successful mining here, the money was available but the technology wasn’t; in later years, the reverse has been true.
When a hurricane hits around here, or veers away, leaving the fringe clouds to do their stuff and drop several inches of precipitation in as many hours on El Triunfo and the surrounding sere hills, the heaven’s opening fills the dry arroyos and turns them into raging floods that carry all before them. Anticipating this, the villagers have tipped all their bulky rubbish into the nearest gorge: mattresses, tired and yellow, after several generations of use, old, rusted bicycles, even old cars. The torrents sweep it all away to the nearby Sea of Cortez. The larger items, such as cars, don’t make the whole trip in one year, but edge ever closer, perhaps two to five miles each year, depending on the duration and amount of the rainfall.
All the families come out and cavort in the drenching rains. How many say to themselves, “Heck, there goes enough water to keep the village for years, how can we catch it”
Again, herein lies another huge problem. Dams have been built - and rebuilt - in favourable parts of the arroyos, many, many times and they all fail. Can any clever reader guess why?
Well, if you said, “Because all these torrents of water also contain a hidden river of sand, gravel and rocks, also on the move to fresh pastures,” you would be right. As soon as a dam fills with water - in a matter of minutes rather than hours - it also fills with sand which displaces all the water over the top and away! As well as all the other detritus of nature’s most efficient cleaning system. So dams don’t work for the same reason - lack of finance. Yes, technology exists to admit the water and keep out the sand, but it would cost far more than anyone can afford. It would have to be done at hundreds of locations, one or more for every village of a few hundred souls.
Baja. Muddling on in the burning desert sun. This from some notes I made in 2002.
“Thousands of square miles of cactus, mesquite, small animals, reptiles and birds muddle on, too. They endure through the usual grim conditions, interspersed with even worse years of complete drought. The aridity guarantees constant dust, sweat and thirst often quenched with coca-cola if the pipes are dry that day.
When the rains finally arrive - as they will most years - all the suffering is forgotten as the desert bursts into riotous colour and verdant greens. As Steinbeck aptly observed, “Life is everywhere just waiting for ideal conditions to appear.”
Or does the truth for all this human forbearance lie elsewhere? As a neighbour said back then when we were discussing the lack of drinking water, “ Hey, mano, no hay problema...pinche aqua te mato, (the f-----g water will kill you), we only drink beer anyway!”
Notes. The remark by the camposino to me regarding drinking beer was only partly a joke. Due to the extensive mining for precious metals here, up to the 1950’s, the aquifers have a high percentage of cyanide and arsenic in their water, which is still leaching down into the ground water. (Any surface water around here in the old diggings is marked with the skull snd crossbones). The water actually used for drinking comes in via the army in daily tankers...drinking the ground water in El Triunfo won’t strike you dead immediately, but is definitely hazardous to your health!