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River Doctors Without Borders: Outside help for San Miguel de Allende’s troubled waters

By George James

Should you spot two tall Americans and a petite dark-haired Italian nosing about one of the two streams that pass near San Miguel de Allende—the major Río Laja that passes west of the city and the smaller Río Cachinches that runs through town, passing near the San Juan de Dios market and beneath calle Canal on its way—give them a wave. They’re here to help protect our water.

It’s well known that San Miguel faces water challenges on several fronts—not least the extensive overuse of groundwater. But equally important to residents’ health today and prosperity tomorrow are our surface water resources. They’re the focus of a study being conducted by Janna Owens and Terry Griffith, partners in a US-based environmental consultancy, the Chaac Water Group, and Ina Lepore, a volunteer with UK-based Engineers Without Borders.

The three experts are guests in San Miguel of AguaVidaSMA and the Water Collaborative—a consortium of local water-focused citizens’ and volunteer groups including OCAS (Observatorio Ciudadana del Agua y Saneamiento: the citizens’ observatory for water and sanitation), Audubon de México, Amigos de la Presa and Salvemos al Río Laja. Over the next several weeks, they’ll be conducting the second phase of a project begun a year ago on the Rio Cachinches, and inaugurating a new one on the Río Laja.

Both are aimed at identifying threats to (and from) what Owens calls the ‘sanitation loop’: the water we use in homes, restaurants and hotels, or workshops and factories—and then dump back into nature. It’s an important resource with significant impacts on health. But in San Miguel, as all over México, it is heavily threatened—which poses a threat to community and individual health in turn.

‘Waste’ water heavily used

Mexico has the dubious distinction of leading the world in the volume of untreated waste water—sewage—used to irrigate crops. The practice carries a sharply elevated risk of illness for those who consume produce contaminated with fecal bacteria and other pathogens carried in untreated sewage, but also for farmers, their families, or wildlife who come in contact with waste water flowing through irrigation canals and into fields.

A further threat comes from raw industrial and residential sewage being disposed of directly into the Cachinches or Laja rivers, without being sent for proper cleaning to a waste water treatment plant like the one SAPASMA operates just west of the city.

Last year, Owens, an aquatic biologist with experience in water quality assessment and compliance, and Griffith, an environmental engineer who spent much of the last two decades advising US Native American bands on how to secure safe water and sanitation, conducted an inventory of such threats to the Cachinches. They identified a number of places where untreated waste water runs into the overtaxed river, and where municipal sewage is being diverted into canals to irrigate fields.

This year, they’ll be doing a similar survey of the lower reaches of the Laja River, while working with Lepore to turn last year’s preliminary report on the Cachinches into something far more ambitious and useful: a ‘decision-making tool’ which will contain both specific information about threats to the river, and specific opportunities for responses that will be feasible, effective and sustainable over the long term.

Become a community researcher

The experts and AguaVidaSMA plan to make the results of the work available to the community and its leaders for further action.

But they’re not waiting until then to invite the community into their work. In fact, the surveys and decision tool are only half of what the team plans for its stay in San Miguel. No less important is the recruitment and training of local residents to begin creating a rigorous record of the two rivers’ health, and that of the Presa Allende.

Before anything can be managed, it needs to be understood. Before the area’s surface water quality can be improved, its present condition needs to be accurately known. To that end, the project is recruiting sanmiguelenses who want to see their city’s public water bodies made cleaner and flourish, to become part of an ongoing program to track key water quality indicators in the Allende reservoir and its two rivers. Trainees will learn how to observe, sample and analyze water quality, so that they can become part of a volunteer network checking specified locations on the rivers and presa at least once a month.

The effort will provide the ‘baseline’ information that will be a starting point for remedial steps—and for recording future improvements. The organizers and experts also hope that the new, scientifically verified information will spur more residents to become actively engaged in the effort to restore San Miguel’s surface water to health—and improve the health of sanmiguelenses at the same time.

For more information or to volunteer as a tester, contact:

George James can be reached at He is a communications consultant and San Miguel resident who volunteers his time with water groups.


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