The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in North America and home to millions of people and species. Neither people nor wildlife in the desert could live without the rivers that flow through it – the Rio Conchos and the Rio Grande.
I travelled to the region in late 2011 to work with my Mexican colleagues in the light of increasing threats to these rivers – a growing population, agricultural and industrial expansion and climate change.
This is my final day in the field:
I awake a little tired on Monday, but I’m also sad this will be my last day in the field. Over the previous four days we have covered around 1,000 miles – a good demonstration of the size of the Rio Conchos river basin.
Today we won’t be travelling as far. We’re on our way to visit the huge irrigation district of Delicias, a short drive from Chihuahua. Ninety percent of the Rio Conchos’ waters are used for agriculture. And even that’s not sufficient – extra water has to be pumped up from underground aquifers. As a consequence the Rio Conchos runs very low on water and the underground aquifer level is falling by around half a metre a year. Approaching Delicias the scenery changes dramatically. The dusty desert quite suddenly makes way to deep green fields of alfafa, a thirsty crop used as animal fodder. Further ahead we see large plantations of pecan trees.
Today I’m with WWF Mexico’s Alfredo Rodriguez, a hydrology specialist. Alfredo explains that the best opportunity to increase water levels in the Rio Conchos is by improving the efficiency with which farmers use water. WWF’s work in some parts of the district has resulted in 15% savings in water use. But other areas of the irrigation district haven’t had access to new equipment, and farmers lack basic training.
Alfredo takes me to La Chavena irrigation district where I meet Eliseo Rodriguez, its president. Eliseo looks worried. A recent study commissioned by WWF has shown how much water they are using – in some cases eight times more than other areas of the district. He tells me that the reservoir levels are low and he’s worried about next year’s crop. His hope is that by working with Alfredo, he can get government support for new equipment to save on water usage.
As we walk down to the river bank, Eliseo tells me he’s also worried by the quality of the water. Most water in the river here has been used by the irrigation districts upstream – heavy on pesticides and other agrochemical products. It’s certainly true that the river here looks murky, yet there are birds everywhere. I’m told that this area is a real hotspot for birds despite the levels of pollution. It was great to hear that recently WWF, together with other partners, was successful in lobbying for international recognition and protection for a 15-mile stretch of river. This should mean better water quality for Eliseo and is certainly be good news for the birds.
At our next stop, I’m shown a new initiative to improve water quality in the Rio Conchos. WWF, working with a local NGO and the Rotary Club, has successfully piloted a biofilter. A small white building filled with nothing more that worms and pecan shells miraculously cleans waste water from a poor housing estate on the edge of Julimes. Previously this water went untreated straight into the river. Now it’s used to irrigate nearby fields. The state government is so impressed that it’s looking to use this at a new industrial park in Chihuahua.
During lunch, I learn that Alfredo is also an expert on geology. The Chihuahuan Desert, he tells me, is very young geologically. The mountains we see around us were formed by intense volcanic activity around 30 million years ago. Evidence of the volcanic past can be seen in a series of hot springs dotted around the desert plain. I’m taken to the Julimes hot spring where I meet Margarita who works with the same NGO involved with the bio-filter.
We go to the spring where I see hundreds of small pupfish darting about. Margarita tells me to dip my hand in. Wow! It’s hot! Here the water can reach up to 47 degrees and the Julimes pupfish is believed to be the hottest fish in the world. It’s also found here and only here – which is why WWF and the Friends of the Pandeno NGO have set up a protected area. It’s clear that Margarita loves her work and I can only imagine how inspired the local children she brings here must be.
I also learn that there are many more springs like this, each one with unique fish species found nowhere else on earth. At San Diego de Alcala, another thermal spring, WWF is working with Manuel, its owner, to set up a similar level of protection. Manuel is enthusiastic as he thinks he, too, can profit from eco-tourism – a win-win situation for everyone!
As the day draws to a close, I reflect on the amazing experience I’ve had in the Chihuahuan Desert. I feel privileged to have seen some truly stunning scenery, encountered new species of fish and to have met some really committed people. But the immense pressure on the Rio Conchos and the Rio Grande – the desert’s lifeline – is also very apparent.
Some great work has already been achieved but we increasingly need to work with the national, state and local governments to replicate these projects to a much larger scale. Thankfully we have a great WWF team in Mexico and I feel reassured that we’re on the right track.