Mexico City plans to draw drinking water from a mile-deep aquifer, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. The Mexican effort challenges a key tenet of U.S. clean water policy: that water far underground can be intentionally polluted because it will never be used.
U.S. environmental regulators have long assumed that reservoirs located thousands of feet underground will be too expensive to tap. So even as population increases, temperatures rise, and traditional water supplies dry up, American scientists and policy-makers often exempt these deep aquifers from clean water protections and allow energy and mining companies to inject pollutants directly into them.
As ProPublica has reported in an ongoing investigation about America’s management of its underground water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued more than 1,500 permits for companies to pollute such aquifers in some of the driest regions. Frequently, the reason was that the water lies too deep to be worth protecting.
But Mexico City’s plans to tap its newly discovered aquifer suggest that America is poisoning wells it might need in the future.
Indeed, by the standard often applied in the U.S., American regulators could have allowed companies to pump pollutants into the aquifer beneath Mexico City.
For example, in eastern Wyoming, an analysis showed that it would cost half a million dollars to construct a water well into deep, but high-quality aquifer reserves. That, plus an untested assumption that all the deep layers below it could only contain poor-quality water, led regulators to allow a uranium mine to inject more than 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste every day into the underground reservoirs.
But south of the border, worsening water shortages have forced authorities to look ever deeper for drinking water.
Today in Mexico City, the world’s third-largest metropolis, the depletion of shallow reservoirs is causing the ground to sink in, iconic buildings to teeter, and underground infrastructure to crumble. The discovery of the previously unmapped deep reservoir could mean that water won’t have to be rationed or piped into Mexico City from hundreds of miles away.
According to the Times report, Mexican authorities have already drilled an exploratory well into the aquifer and are working to determine the exact size of the reservoir. They are prepared to spend as much as $40 million to pump and treat the deeper water, which they say could supply some of Mexico City’s 20 million people for as long as a century.
Scientists point to what’s happening in Mexico City as a harbinger of a world in which people will pay more and dig deeper to tap reserves of the one natural resource human beings simply cannot survive without.
“Around the world people are increasingly doing things that 50 years ago nobody would have said they’d do,” said Mike Wireman, a hydrogeologist with the EPA who also works with the World Bank on global water supply issues.
Wireman points to new research in Europe finding water reservoirs several miles beneath the surface — far deeper than even the aquifer beneath Mexico City — and says U.S. policy has been slow to adapt to this new understanding.
“Depth in and of itself does not guarantee anything — it does not guarantee you won’t use it in the future, and it does not guarantee that that it is not” a source of drinking water, he said.
If Mexico City’s search for water seems extreme, it is not unusual. In aquifers Denver relies on, drinking water levels have dropped more than 300 feet. Texas rationed some water use last summer in the midst of a record-breaking drought. And Nevada — realizing that the water levels in one of the nation’s largest reservoirs may soon drop below the intake pipes — is building a drain hole to sap every last drop from the bottom.
“Water is limited, so they are really hustling to find other types of water,” said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “It’s kind of a grim future, there’s no two ways about it.”
In a parched world, Mexico City is sending a message: Deep, unknown potential sources of drinking water matter, and the U.S. pollutes them at its peril.
MEXICO CITY — It turns out a partial solution to this unwieldy megacity’s vexing water problem may have been under residents’ feet all along — albeit a long way down.
Mexico City government officials Monday announced the discovery of an aquifer more than a mile below ground that could provide enough water for at least some of the metropolitan area’s 20 million residents. Officials say the aquifer could reduce the city’s dependence on water pumped from outlying areas and reduce the strain on the region’s shallower aquifers — the over-pumping of which is causing the city to sink precipitously, in some cases more than a foot each year.
The city’s water department drilled an exploratory well recently in the eastern borough of Iztapalapa, a densely packed urban zone where the quality of water — much of which is drawn from shallower depths — is poor enough to be the punch line for many local jokes.
The news of a new water source was received with excitement in a city where experts have been predicting that demand for water could eventually outstrip supply. During a severe drought in 2009, some poorer neighborhoods were denied water service or subject to severe rationing. The city government hauled water into some areas by truck.
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In a front-page article Monday in the newspaper Reforma bearing the fevered headline “Water in Sight!” the director of the city water system, Ramon Aguirre, described the discovery as “one of the biggest historical successes for the city.” He said the aquifer was capable of supplying water for more than 100 years.
In a subsequent radio interview, however, Aguirre emphasized that there was still much to be done, in conjunction with the federal government, to confirm the size of the aquifer and determine how much water could be extracted from it.
Aguirre said he expected the city to initially drill five wells to draw water from the aquifer, a project that could cost about $40 million.
Federico Mooser, a veteran geologist who helped the city with its exploratory well in Iztapalapa, said in a phone interview Monday that the aquifer would not solve Mexico City’s water problem. “This is a lucky finding of medium importance,” he said.
Still, Mooser said, it was a promising new source of water that, while not drinkable, could be made so with relatively inexpensive treatment. Just as important, he said, the aquifer is deep enough that tapping it would not cause subsidence.
“That’s very important,” he said. “Because with every … well that we have in Mexico City, we take [water] out, and we sink.”
The sinkage is an aesthetic problem, of course, obvious to the casual tourist: numerous sacrosanct colonial buildings in the heart of the city list to one side or the other like dissolute revelers. But the subsidence also strains underground infrastructure, cracking municipal water pipes. That only adds to the water-supply problem.
While two-thirds of Mexico City’s water is drawn from its overtaxed aquifers, the remainder is imported from outlying river basins, according to David Barkin, an economics professor at Mexico City’s Autonomous Metropolitan University who has studied water issues. Importing water from beyond city limits has created water shortages among campesinos and indigenous people, exacerbating their poverty, Barkin said.
Despite the discovery of the aquifer, part of the metropolitan area’s long-term water solution will have to include the construction of more water treatment plants to recycle used water. One such plant, described by federal authorities as one of the world’s largest, is planned in the nearby state of Hidalgo.
Experts say the city must also expand its system for catching rainwater and improve its conservation programs. Barkin has been urging the city to return its many rivers — which are currently piped out of the city to avoid flooding — to something closer to their natural state, allowing the city to draw some for use in the municipal water supply.
Barkin acknowledged that this plan could mean relocating some Mexico City residents. That, in turn, could be a problem in a city where politics and protest tend to run hot.
Cecilia Sanchez and Daniel Hernandez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
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Got water? Hard to know in Mexico City.
Every day, 50 to 60 broken water pipes are repaired in this megacity of over 20 million residents. Sometimes that means a surprise loss of water for Mexico City residents.
The usually leaky faucet had stopped its perpetual drip. So it didn’t come as a surprise when, instead of a stream of fresh water, I opened the faucet to a gurgling, gagging sound.
Not a drop.
It was the third occasion in roughly a month when the water at my apartment in a middle class Mexico City neighborhood disappeared without warning. The city government frequently alerts residents a day or two in advance when there will be a shutdown, but in the most affected neighborhoods, it’s easy to get caught unawares.
There was no announcement, no time to fill the washing machine with water to divvy out for cleaning dishes, flushing toilets, or taking a meager bath with a pot of water heated on the stove.
With 20 million-plus inhabitants in the metropolitan area, Mexico City’s water woes are hardly surprising [read more about water in Mexico City in our recent megacity series].
Every day, the city repairs 50 to 60 broken pipes, says Ramon Aguirre Díaz, director of Mexico City’s water system. There are so many fixes needed that sometimes those repairs, which require the water to be shut off, are made without first notifying residents.
On New Year’s Day, the city announced it would suspend water for two days to 126 neighborhoods – including five hospitals – while it did work on pipes delivering potable water from an aqueduct in nearby Mexico State. This cut affected the city’s far north borough Gustavo A. Madero; yet a similar announcement was not made for the cuts on Dec. 31 to the Benito Juarez borough where I live.
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While consecutive center-left governments have been lauded internationally for their attention to environmental issues such as reducing traffic and improving air quality in Mexico City, the water issue has largely fallen by the wayside, says Guillermo Velasco, coordinator of environmental studies at the Centro Mario Molina, an environmental research center.
Former Mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s government built a new metro line, added three Bus Rapid Transit lines to the public transportation system – the Metrobus system has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 100,000 tons annually – and launched a bike-share program.
“There was a lot of leadership in the environmental sector,” says Mr. Velasco. “But on the water issue it was more of the same. New concepts are needed instead of having the idea that everything can be fixed with pipes.”
Mr. Aguirre Díaz, the water system director, concedes as much. He says that, as a government agency subject to political whims, the water department isn’t set up to think long-term. As a result, he says, most large cities decentralize the water department to run as a public, private, or hybrid company – a plan Mexico City is currently contemplating.
“There is no long-term solution that can be proposed because administrations change,” Aguirre Díaz says. “Right now it’s a controlled problem and what we need is to prevent a crisis.”
Aguirre Díaz defines a “crisis” as a situation in which a drought causes the aquifer that supplies much of the city’s water to run low. If that was to happen, more than 30 percent of the city could go without water, affecting millions.
In the meantime, the city controls the shortages and the repairs and truly drastic measures haven’t been needed – yet.
But I’ve learned my lesson. With the faucet running again, I started filling up jars and buckets, saving water for a “rainy” day.
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