The University of Texas at Austin

Troubled Waters

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I first came to Cuatrociénegas in the desert of northern Mexico in January 2004.

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I thought it was amazing—the white gypsum sand dunes ...

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... the mountains, the people, and the springs.

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What really impressed me was all this water in the middle of the desert.

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I’m Brad Wolaver—a hydrogeologist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. Cuatrociénegas, which means the four marshes ...

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... has been studied for decades because of its rare and unique plants and animals.

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With over 70 endemic species, some people compare it to the Galapagos islands.

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The village has long depended on the springs to grow pecans, apricots, grapes and corn.

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But now this beautiful oasis is in danger.

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For years, the water table has been falling ...

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... and some spring fed pools and a stream that supplied the village’s drinking water have dried up.

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Lulu Ferriño, whose family has lived and farmed here for generations ...

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... shows me a picture of a retention pond behind her family’s mill. In the picture, she’s a small child. Today, she’s a grandmother and the pond is dry.

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The water that makes this valley so special is in danger of disappearing.

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Many researchers have blamed the drying of Cuatrociénegas on large scale alfalfa farming ...

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... that was recently begun in nearby valleys to feed dairy cattle.

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Others have blamed it on climate change or natural drought cycles.

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I realized that my expertise—mapping and estimating the sizes of aquifers in dry environments—could help shed some light on the debate.

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Here I am at Poza Churince where I collected water samples to determine how long ago spring flow originated as rainfall. I found that the water is at least 50 years old.

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This result showed me that water has traveled from outside of the Cuatrociénegas basin.

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My research also revealed that the amount of water coming out of the springs is much less than the amount of rainfall absorbed into the ground in the Cuatrociénegas valley and surrounding mountains.

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The hard baked caliche desert floor absorbs almost no rainfall. The mountains probably don’t absorb more than about 1 percent of the meager rainfall they receive.

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So for the aquifer to maintain the current flow of the springs, it must extend thousands of square kilometers ...

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... including several adjacent valleys, places that have seen huge increases in water extraction for large scale dairy farming.

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So now that we know that pumping in those adjacent valleys can affect the springs, the real question is which is more important—dairy farming in the middle of the desert in order to feed a growing population ...

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... or protecting plant and animal species that exist nowhere else in the world?

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In many ways, the struggle to manage water in Cuatrociénegas is the same one that is playing out in arid environments around the world, including the Southwestern United States.

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As global human population balloons, the challenge of using water sustainably will only grow in importance.

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There is so much life here that depends on a precious, limited water supply.

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And that life depends on people managing water well.

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Journey to Cuatrociénegas


Aquatic Box Turtle
Troubled Waters: A fragile desert oasis in Mexico is drying up and researchers think they know where the water is going.

SELECT another Cuatrociénegas audio slide show to view:

Aquatic Box Turtle
The Aquatic Box Turtle: Researchers study one of the most endangered turtles in the world.

Ancient Ecology
Ancient Ecology: Paleobotanist Bruce Albert collects fossil pollen samples to better understand the past environments in the basin.

WATCH a Cuatrociénegas video:

Water in the Desert
Water in the Desert: Discover Cuatrociénegas, where more than 70 species of plants and animals have evolved in the isolation of Mexico's desert springs. (Video opens in a new window.)