Wednesday, October 8, 2014

“El Nuevo Sonora” Continues Sonora’s Hydraulic Traditions

Sonora Water Wars, Part 3

 “El Nuevo Sonora” Continues 
Sonora’s Hydraulic Traditions

October 08, 2014

(First published in New Mexico Mercury at: )

By Tom Barry

When you cross into Sonora from Arizona, you leave one hydraulic society and enter another. Both states are at risk. Their medium-term water futures are uncertain.

The water megaprojects – dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, and cement irrigation canals – that have made Sonoran Desert bloom with farms and cities are no longer sufficient. As temperatures rise, evaporation takes its toll, and droughts persist, there is an alarming shortfall -- between the water that people and business demand and the water that can be found.

Since the 1930s, Arizona and Sonora have confidently kept expanding their desert societies with the conviction that water would always follow money. Which proved to be true on both sides of the border. Federally funded dams and water-transfer projects transferred water from mountains and river valleys to some of the hottest and driest places in the transborder West, giving rise to such cities as Hermosillo, Guaymas, Ciudad Obregón, Tucson, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.

A mostly arid or semi-arid region that hosts North America’s four major deserts -- the Chihuahuan, Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran Desert – it is a transboundary region that has also been called the North American Southwest.[1]

When surface water proves insufficient, there’s always been groundwater to tap. First, diesel-fueled pumps penetrated deeper into the aquifers and bolsones, then as the federal governments in Mexico and the United States brought subsidized electricity to rural areas. Scores of well-drilling firms opened previously untapped reservoirs of fossil water.

Subsidized electricity prevailed throughout the transborder West. In Mexico, however, electricity costs for agribusiness have been especially negligible when calculating profit margins. Mexico’s agricultural sector benefits from the highest electricity subsidies for agriculture of all the Latin American and Caribbean nations.[2]

To drive nonstop on federal four-lane highways from northern Arizona through the nearly 400-mile length of Sonora takes about 12 hours. For those who might wonder (few people do) where the water comes from that makes the desert bloom with cities and monoculture agriculture, there are few readily discernible answers.

The water megaprojects that provide water to cities and farms are far away and out of sight. During the seven hours it takes to travel from the U.S.-Mexico border twin cities of Nogales to Sonora’s southern border with Sinaloa, you cross only dry rivers and arroyos.

In Sonora, like Arizona, water for the desert bloom comes from sparsely populated narrow river valleys and high mountains to the east and the north. Most residents of the desert cities never see the dams, reservoirs, and inter-basin aqueducts -- that have made their hydraulic societies possible. Ask someone in Phoenix or a tourist in the seaside resort of San Carlos on the Mar de Cortés where their water comes. Few know.

Hermosillo, the capital and most populous city of Sonora, is a good place for a field visit to consider the future of the transborder West. Situated a bit more than three hours south of Nogales, Hermosillo offers a clear but disturbing view of the past and the future of hydraulic societies in this transborder region.

Hermosillo also stands at the center of the most bitterly fought water wars of the desert West – a conflict that pits Hermosillo at the center of the state against the Yaquis and other water consumers of the Yaqui Valley in southern Sonora. Following the pattern of other regional water wars, the Yaqui water war is a complicated struggle involving urban and rural water users, the more and less powerful, and historically evolved special interests.

For those considering the water future of the transborder West, there are two must-see sites in Hermosillo. The first is the downtown headquarters of Sonora SI (Integrated System), which offers an up-beat scenario in which hydraulic megaprojects capture and redistribute scarce water resources.

Hermosillo Dam: First for Irrigation, Then Drinking, and Now Mostly Dry

Next, a short drive to the east takes you directly to Hermosillo’s very own water megaproject. Constructed in 1949 by the federal government, the Abelardo Rodríguez dam and reservoir were designed to capture Sonora River flows for use by Hermosillo.

At first, the federal government intended that all the water would be used by the rapidly expanding agribusinesses in the municipio (county) of Hermosillo -- which spans more than 14,885 sq. kilometers (5,745 sq. miles). A trip from Hermosillo’s center to the coastal town of Bahía Kino cuts through the vast coastal plains (known as the Costa de Hermosillo) of the Hermosillo municipio – a distance of 108 kilometers through arid scrublands converted to agribusiness by way of a labyrinth of irrigation canals and ditches.

In the 1980s, as the city of Hermosillo grew desperate for drinking water, the National Water Commission shifted the reservoir water from irrigation to domestic water consumption. But the onset of the drought in 1996-97 caused the reservoir to completely dry up, leaving the city once again without a dependable source of water.

Except in cases of heavy monsoon rains, the reservoir is usually a dusty bowl. When the city in 1998 gave up on the reservoir as a dependable source of drinking water, the old plans to transfer water to the city from the Yaqui River were resurrected. Yet it wasn’t until Sonora SI built the aqueduct in 2011-2012 that water from the Yaqui River began flowing to Hermosillo.

Surging fountains that rise outside Sonora SI building tell a story of a future made possible by hydraulic technology and infrastructure, with plenty of water for everyone – expanding desert cities, new agroexport industries, and a booming mining sector.

Can a new network of hydraulic megaprojects – including Sonora SI’s highly controversial Novillo-Hermosillo aqueduct -- keep Hermosillo growing and solve the state’s multitude of water crises and water wars? Governor Guillermo Padrés Elías, who launched Sonora SI in 2010 as part of his “El Nuevo Sonora” political platform, believes new dams and aqueducts will do the trick. The Yaquis and the Movimiento Ciudadano para el Agua in the Yaqui Valley think differently, as do the Guajirío indigenous settlements that will be displaced by the dam that Sonora SI is constructing across the Mayo River in southeastern Sonora.

[1] William deBuys, A Great Aridness, Oxford University Press, 2011.

[2] Banco Mundial, Los Recursos Naturales en América Latina y el Caribe, 2010, at:

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sonora Revives its Hydraulic Society, Sparking Water Wars

Got a Water Crisis? Get More Hydraulics

How the Mexican border state of Sonora is rushing forward with more water-management projects in response to escalating water crisis. A series of articles on water crisis and water wars in the border state of Sonora.

Part Two: Sonora Revives Its Hydraulic Society

Hermosillo / Tom Barry

A water war is getting in the way of traffic and free trade in 
the Mexican border state of Sonora. Trucks and cars come to a standstill about 350 miles south of the Arizona-Sonora border.  Yaquis have mounted an intermittent blockade across international highway #15.

Wielding sticks and waving the Yaqui flag, the indigenous communities of the Yaqui river delta have since 2011 been demanding that the government stop taking water out of the Yaqui River. Traffic backs up in both directions from the Yaqui town of Vicam for as many as 12 kilometers before the blockade of the Nogales-Mazatlan toll road is temporarily lifted.

As the state government has stepped up its attempt to co-opt, corrupt, and repress the Yaquis, including ordering the arrest of its leaders, the Yaquis have become more militant and determined. The water war in northwestern Mexico is gaining adherents across Mexico and among environmentalists and human rights advocates in the United States.

It’s a water war that Governor Guillermo Padrés Elías sparked when in early 2010 he announced an ambitious plan to meet Sonora’s alarming water crisis with a network of hydraulic infrastructure projects, including aqueducts and dams.

Months after he took office in late 2009, Governor Padrés, a member of a prominent ranching family and leader of the National Action Party (PAN), committed the state government to construct a new phalanx of water megaprojects through an upbeat infrastructure program called Sonora SI (Integral System of Sonora). The government promoted the new water megaproject program as a revival of Sonora’s era (1938-1990) of building major waterworks -- addressing the arid state’s water limitations by damming rivers, transferring water via aqueducts, and subsidizing the intensive pumping of shrinking groundwater supplies.

From the governor’s first announcement of Sonora SI, it was never clear how the indebted state government would pay for the some two-dozen new megaprojects. At the same time, however, during his first two years in office Governor Pádres could count on the strong backing of President Felipe Calderón, a fellow PAN leader.

The Yaqui water war comes at a time when the state’s future is jeopardized by the expanding water crises in rural and urban Sonora. One view – that of Governor Padrés and Sonora SI – is that Sonora has enough water for all Sonorenses. All that is needed is a new network of waterworks to transfer water from water-rich areas to water-poor ones.

Others, however, already suffering from the ravages of climate change and diminishing river flows and depleted aquifers insist that Sonora’s traditional patterns of managing water are fundamentally and dangerously unsustainable. For the most part, however, the Yaqui water war highlights how increasingly different geographic, economic, and social sectors are determined to hold on to the water they have and to fight for more.

The immediate point of contention of the Yaqui water war is a new 155-kilometer Novillo-Hermosillo aqueduct, officially known as the Independencia aqueduct. For the past three years, the west-east aqueduct has been transferring as much as 75,000 Mm3 of river water from the middle Yaqui River basin in higher elevations of eastern Sonora to the state capital of Hermosillo, which lies in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.

Although the fight fundamentally revolves around indigenous rights and historic distribution of Yaqui River water, this escalating conflict underscores the unsustainability of tradition of hydraulic megaprojects in Sonora. Another contentious Sonora SI project is the planned Pilares dam on the Mayo River to the west of the Yaqui River – which constitutes an existential threat to the deeply impoverished Guajiríos indigenous communities in this remote region.

Instead of evaluating the flaws in the state’s reliance on hydraulic projects to capture surface and groundwater, Sonora SI, Governor Padrés, together with the city of Hermosillo, are committed to a new package of controversial waterworks – ones that transfer and further deplete water supplies rather than conserving water and altering water consumption patterns.

Desert Illusions

Since the early 1940s Sonora’s demographic and agricultural boom has been largely the product of hydraulic manipulation. Despite its aridness, Sonora is Mexico’s second largest agricultural producer -- virtually all the result of irrigation.

No other state in Mexico has been so dramatically transformed by the federal government’s network of dams, aqueducts, and irrigation canals. Agriculture accounts for 92% of water consumption in Sonora, and no other Mexican state is intensively irrigated as Sonora. Virtually all this agriculture occurs in the arid western plains and along the coast, where average annual rainfall is 8-15 inches, depending on the area.

Sonora is a classically “hydraulic society.” The term hydraulic society was coined by a German scholar who found that some of the earliest civilizations were based economically, politically, and theologically on water management.[i]

In ancient hydraulic societies -- such as the civilizations in China and those that developed between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the aridlands of Mesopotamia – the central authorities were the water masters. Their power stemmed fundamentally from their role in managing sophisticated irrigation systems and water-supply systems. If their subjects became thirsty, their authority and power would falter.

Closer to home and more immediate is California, which U.S. scholar Donald Worster and others categorize as a hydraulic society.[ii] In his paper “Damming of Sonora,” University of Oklahoma scholar Sterling Evans wrote that Worster described the U.S. West as a “region characterized by ‘a social order founded on the intensive management of water,’ ‘communal reorganization,’ “new patterns of human interaction,’ and ‘new forms of discipline and authority.’”[iii]

Any discussion of hydraulic societies in the transborder West must note the seminal investigation and analysis of Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. In his 1986 book, Reisner wrote: “Millions settled in regions where nature, left alone, would have countenanced thousands at best; great valleys and hemispherical basins metamorphosed from desert blond to semitropic green.”

Two views of hydraulic Sonora. Top is southeast of Hermosillo, where water sources for small farmers/ranchers have dried up, while at same time miles of vineyards producing table grapes for export are spreading across desert north of Hermosillo / Tom Barry

You see the same miracle of hydraulic transformation in Sonora. Traveling south from the border at Nogales through the Sonoran Desert and then passing through the Yaqui and Mayo river deltas of Sonora – a nearly 7-hour trip – the fruits of Sonora’s hydraulic society are on display.

If one were drive the nearly 400 miles from the border at Nogales to Sonora’s border with Sinaloa, you would cross three river beds (Sonora River, Yaqui River, Mayo River) that for the past several decades usually run dry as they head south and west toward the Gulf of California. Temperatures rise to 120 degrees or higher in the summer. Cactus, mesquite, creosote, and thorn trees define the natural landscape -- except for the vineyards and farmlands that bloom for miles around Hermosillo, Ciudad Obregón, and Navajoa.

How is it possible that Sonora has long been one of the top three agricultural states in Mexico? Even most Sonorenses don’t fully understand where all the water comes from for the state’s cities, industries, and agribusiness. That’s because most of the state’s hydraulic megaprojects lie in the isolated valleys of sparsely populated eastern Sonora, a region known as La Serrana (mountainous area).

Of the state’s five major dams and reservoirs, four are to the east of Sonora’s main demographic and farming belt along Highway 15 -- three on the Yaqui River and one on the Mayo River, each of which feed major irrigation canals leaving the rivers dry as they enter the former coastal deltas.

But the hydraulics of Sonora have been breaking down over the past two decades. Today, dams stand before empty reservoirs, hydroelectric plants stand abandoned, and government-subsidized irrigation projects have left vast expanses of coastal Sonora crusted with salt.

As the Sonoran government -- with more than two-thirds financing from the federal government -- continues with its water megaproject program, there is little reflection of the failures and consequences of Sonora’s “hydraulic society.” Instead most of those involved in the water wars in Sonora -- with the exception of small circles of environmentalists and academics -- look to inter-state and intra-state transfers of water.

Both sides of the Yaqui water war, for example, support a federal plan for an aqueduct that would bring water from the Nayarit and southern Sinaloa (two water-rich states along the Pacific coast) to Sonora.

[i] Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957, as cited in Sterling Evans, “Damming Sonora: An Environmental and Transnational History of Water, Agriculture, and Society in Northwestern Mexico,” Discussion paper, March 25, 2011, at:

[ii] Donald Worster, “Hydraulic Society in California,” in Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[iii] Sterling Evans, “Damming Sonora: An Environmental and Transnational History of Water, Agriculture, and Society in Northwestern Mexico,” Discussion paper, March 25, 2011, at:

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Introduction to the Yaqui Water War

Got a Water Crisis? Get More Hydraulics

How the Mexican border state of Sonora is rushing forward with more water-management projects in response to escalating water crisis.

Part One: Introduction to the Yaqui Water War

The U.S. West was won by a strategy to capture the natural flow of rivers cutting through the deserts. A vast array of water megaprojects reshaped the West’s landscape and opened these aridlands for population growth and agricultural development.

Wherever the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation found rivers running free, the engineering agency constructed dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts. The agricultural empires and booming cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas of the arid West are the offspring of these massive waterworks.

In Mexico, the development of the country’s northern drylands and deserts mirrored the U.S. model of hydraulic manipulation. The post-revolutionary Mexican government launched a modernization plan in the 1930s that dammed region’s rivers, redistributed land into irrigation districts, and transferred water to previously uncultivated plains and deltas.

The problems that stem from hydraulic megaprojects are felt throughout the transborder West – a region that spans North America’s four major deserts (Great Basin, Mohave, Chihuahuan, and Sonoran) and adjacent aridlands. It is a region that William duBuys, author of A Great Aridness, has described as the “North American Southwest.”

The unsustainability of the water-use patterns of these aridlands is reaching crisis proportions as climate change – with its higher temperatures, severe weather events, and prolonged droughts – advances.

On both sides of the international border, communities and governments are confronting the limits of the region’s surface water and groundwater reserves. Social clashes are erupting as water runs out or is being redistributed.

In the heart of the Sonoran Desert, a bitter water war has been raging for the past four years, dividing the state of Sonora into rival factions.

The Yaqui water war erupted when the state government pushed through the construction of a 155-kilometer aqueduct that transfers water from the Yaqui River west to Hermosillo, the state’s capital and most populous city. The two main protagonists are the state’s executive branch and the Yaqui indigenous communities of the Yaqui River delta. Standing behind them are two rival coalitions of citizens, political parties, municipal governments, agribusiness sectors, and irrigation districts.

Similar tensions are emerging as Governor Guillermo Padrés Elías proceeds with plans for an array of dams, aqueducts, and water treatment and salinization plants – all part of his Sonora SI (Sonora Integrated System) waterworks program.

With federal financing, the governor’s office is, for example, planning the construction of a major new dam across the Mayo River in southeastern Sonora. The resulting reservoir will displace many Guajiríos and threaten the very existence of the diminishing group of indigenous people.

The Yaqui water war is raising concerns about the sustainability of societies that are dependent on dams, aqueducts, and giant irrigation canals. At the same time, the conflict also raises the question: What other options exist to meet rising water demands besides the construction of massive new waterworks that transfer water from water-rich regions to water-poor ones.

Can the intensifying water crises of the transborder West be mitigated or resolved by a new wave of water megaprojects? What are the environmental and social limits of waterworks that effect massive transfers of surface water and groundwater?

The divisiveness and militancy of the Yaqui water war surpass those of other water conflicts in the transborder region. Breaking out in early 2010, Yaqui water war underscores the multitude of social, political, and economic tensions that emerge when traditional water distribution patterns are altered.

As the Yaqui water war evolves, there will surely be lessons for all those living in the increasingly hot and dry transborder West.

Photos by Tom Barry: 1) Yaquis gather for meeting to block Highway 15 in protest against Novillo-Hermosillo aqueduct. 2) Yaquis block Highway 15 at Vicam  in continuing protest against aqueduct. 3) Yaqui people stand in forefront of water war that is dividing Sonora. 4) Yaqui governors meet to discuss "No al Novillo" strategies.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Transborder Drylands Restoration: Vision and Reality After Three Decades of Innovative Partnerships on the U.S.-Mexico Border

(This is the first of what I intend will chronicle my travels and research in the Mexican state of Sonora as I investigate the impact of climate change and the water crisis in the transborder West.)
Published in the special issue of Surveys and Perspectives Integrating Society and Environment, examining large-scale land restoration projects around the world. See:
Cuenca Los Ojos (CLO) is a private organization dedicated to large-scale restoration of degraded arid and semi-arid ecosystems. Incorporated both in Mexico and in the United States, CLO has land-restoration projects that span 748 square kilometres in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands region. This case study focuses on CLO’s restorative operations on the Mexican side of this increasingly fortified border region. It examines the progress, shortcomings, and challenges of the restoration underway on the 10 000 hectares of Rancho San Bernardino, which abuts the international border in northeastern Sonora. CLO’s achievements over the past 15 years — in controlling erosion, refilling and vegetating deeply incised arroyos, increasing surface and subsurface water, and expanding biodiversity — point to the value of considering the Rancho San Bernardino experiment as a global model. That this experiment has coincided with a prolonged drought also marks it as a model for drylands restoration in the hotter, drier conditions predicted with climate change. Similar large-scale restoration projects might also benefit from a review of CLO’s strategies for fostering cross-border cooperation, building multisectoral alliances among private and governmental participants, restoring transborder wildlife corridors, and creating links between land restoration and emerging restoration economies.

The restoration of arid and semi-arid ecosystems merits increased global attention because of their global expanse — constituting at least 40% of the planet’s land surface — and accelerating degradation (Adeel et al., 2005; FAO, 2001; Lal, 2005). But there is no consensus on a clear path forward — in part because of the scarcity of models and in part because of the vigorous debates about restoration and degradation thresholds (Bestelmeyer et al., 2013).
When targeted landscapes span fortified international borders or zones characterized by widespread illegal activity, the complexities and challenges of drylands restoration strategies are compounded. A case study of such a situation is described here: Cuenca Los Ojos (CLO) is restoring severely altered riparian areas and aridlands on the Mexico-U.S. border. At a time when the U.S. government is fortifying its southwest border, CLO is advancing an alternative paradigm that advocates restoring transborder ecosystems and generating sustainable cross-border economies.
The Cuenca Los Ojos foundation is a nonprofit project created by Valer and Josiah Austin whose institutional mission is “to preserve and restore the biodiversity of the borderland region through land protection, habitat restoration, and wildlife reintroduction”.
The Austins moved from New York City in 1983 to begin ranching in southeastern Arizona. The El Coronado Ranch, which is situated on the western flanks of the Chiricahua Mountains in the borderland area, was badly eroded and overgrazed, prompting the Austins to reduce cattle grazing and initiate land-restoration projects. Their restoration strategy primarily involved erosion control and water harvesting techniques on their Arizona ranches, which encompass some 32 000 hectares.
Traces of pre-Columbian indigenous communities remain throughout the transborder region in the form of thousands of trincheras (rock check dams), primarily used to increase cultivable land and to ensure year-round supplies of drinking water, while also stemming erosion. Although initially the Austins relied almost exclusively on trincheras for erosion control and water harvesting, over the past fifteen years they have also been erecting larger erosion control structures built with gabions (rock-filled baskets formed by a mesh of galvanized wire). Gabion check dams function like trincheras in trapping water-borne sediment while slowing down the rush of storm water down arroyos and streams. Also like trincheras, gabion dams eventually fade into the landscape as they become covered by alluvium and vegetation. Since the early 1980s, the Austins estimate they have erected more than 40,000 trincheras, earthen berms, and gabions on their U.S. and Mexico properties.
Institutionalizing their commitment to land restoration, the Austins founded Cuenca Los Ojos (meaning “basin of springs”) and the civil association Cuenca Los Ojos, A.C. in Mexico. CLO is the institutional instrument to manage their restoration projects and to attract funds to maintain this restoration work. Recognizing that their vision of reviving regional biodiversity and wildlife corridors couldn’t be fully realized without restorative projects south of the border, the Austins purchased Rancho San Bernardino in 1999, and they currently own 42 500 hectares along Mexico’s northern border.
CLO has launched its restoration projects in a continental biodiversity hotspot. CLO’s properties encompass all the ecosystems of a region variously described as the Apache Highlands (Marshall et al., 2004) and the Mexican Highlands (Woodward & Durall, 1996). Principal vegetation associations include Chihuahuan desert scrub at 1100 m to pine–oak forests at 2500 m in the Sierra San Luìs (Marshall, 1957). The discontinuous mountain ranges that span the border along the north-south continental divide are known as the Sky Islands or Madrean Archipelago.
CLO manages land restoration projects on five ranches in Mexico that form a nearly unbroken 22 km stretch of borderland, extending east from the San Bernardino Valley into the northern outcrops of the Sierra Madre Occidental. These ranches had been heavily grazed since the 1820s with the creation of the San Bernardino Land Grant (C.O. Minckley, 2013) and especially after the beginning of large-scale cattle ranching by Anglo-Americans and fire exclusion in 1870 (Bahre, 1991). Farming in the San Bernardino Valley using water from artesian wells also resulted in the steady encroachment of woody desert shrubs (largely mesquite and creosote) over the largely brush-free grasslands of the ciénaga that historically spanned this transborder ecoregion.
Rather than concentrating its resources on restoring and conserving the most biodiversity-rich and scenic of its Mexico properties in the Sierra San Luìs, CLO made the strategic decision to focus its resources on Rancho San Bernardino, which was the most severely degraded of its Mexico borderland ranches (V. Austin, personal communication).
1Rancho San Bernardino sits at the junction of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts and the Mexican subtropics and the Great Plains grasslands (Spector, 2002). The headwaters or important tributaries of the Río Yaqui pass through Rancho San Bernardino and other CLO’s Mexico properties. The Río Yaqui is the largest river system west of the Continental Divide in northwestern Mexico and flows nearly 400 miles southwest through Sonora, finally emptying into the Sea of Cortez. Rancho San Bernardino provides a valuable opportunity to assess both riparian and grassland restoration. The San Bernardino Ranch and the adjacent San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge on the north side of the border encompass the uppermost extent of the Río Yaqui watershed, and subsurface pumping of the aquifer is not practised elsewhere in this area.
Overgrazing, alfalfa farming, and gravel mining on the ranch and around its perimeter since the late 1880s dramatically degraded the landscape and lowered the water table by as much as 9 m in some sections (R.L. Minckley, 2013; Minckley & Brunelle, 2007). Soon after the Austins purchased Rancho San Bernardino, CLO removed the cattle and began its extensive erosion control projects. CLO’s Rancho San Bernardino restoration project is a natural landscape scale ecological experiment, which aims to return areas that are currently hardpan scrublands to their former status in the mid-1800s as a mosaic of grassland, desert, and riparian habitat (Bahre, 1995; Marrs-Smith, 1983; Humphries, 1987).
CLO targeted Rancho San Bernardino for two main reasons: 1, to demonstrate how closely monitored erosion control techniques can restore surface water flows and groundwater reserves even in a landscape sundered by deeply incised channels, and 2, to restore the critical function of the San Bernardino Valley in the sustainability of the Río Yaqui watershed and associated transborder wildlife corridor.
The successes, shortcomings, and challenges of the restoration projects on Rancho San Bernardino are instructive for possible future restoration projects in the imperiled desert habitats of the U.S.-Mexico transborder West. This case study can also point to the possibilities of successful cross-border restoration efforts in conflictive drylands regions around the planet.

CLO is simultaneously pursing a wide range of restoration techniques on Rancho San Bernardino including the installation of a variety of erosion control structures, cultivation of native grasses for seed, restoration of grasslands through shrub removal and planting native grasses, and fostering biodiversity. CLO is also leading the way forward in Mexico with respect to advocating the use of prescribed burns in sustainable land practices. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager Radke, 2013) reported that, "Grassland restoration is being accomplished through prescribed burning and removal of invasive mesquite trees, providing benefits to resident and migratory wildlife" (p.6).
CLO’s primary focus, however, is on restorative strategies intended to facilitate the filtration of water into the soil, thereby recreating a historical landscape characterized by perennial surface flows, a vast cross-border ciénaga, and groundwater that can be tapped by native desert grasses.
Valer Austin, who directs CLO’s restoration efforts in Mexico, has relied primarily on empirical knowledge gained by fifteen years of erosion control and water-harvesting efforts on the Austins’ ranches north of the border. The restoration techniques on Rancho San Bernardino have also been informed by close observation of the conservation and restoration practices on the two USFWS refuges that adjoin CLO properties. On a February 6, 2012 visit to CLO’s Mexico ranches, Valer Austin stresses that the key to successful land restoration is the acquired ability to “read the land” and observe how humans and forces of nature have altered the landscape. This empiricism also includes “an unwavering determination to get sustainable land management right, and to be constantly learning from your mistakes” (V. Austin, personal communication).
CLO, however, is committed to the scientific evaluation of its restoration projects, and has collaborated with scores of researchers and scholars from U.S. and Mexican institutions. In its mission statement, CLO stresses its commitment to “scientific research and sustainable resource management techniques”, and it has hosted more than 100 researchers at its ranch headquarters. Rancho San Bernardino is becoming a focal point of research about the drylands restoration, including the effectiveness of gabion dams.
The erection of erosion control structures has a long history marked by many failures (Peterson & Hadley, 1960; Peterson & Branson, 1962), and some environmental experts warn that check dams and gabions should have no place in stream and land restoration, noting that extreme weather events regularly destroy well-intentioned erosion control structures, resulting in greater flood damage (Zeedyk & Clothier, 2012).
There is no playbook of large-scale drylands restoration that CLO could depend on to guide much of its work, especially with respect to erosion control and aggradation of deeply incised channels. Gabion dams on Rancho San Bernardino are constructed in incised channels that are on average six metres deep and can be as wide as 100 metres. Erosion control structures also include earthen berms as wide as 900 metres, and cement spillways with reservoirs.
There is a long record of successes and failures of erosion control structures in networks of small gullies. DeLong and Henderson (2012) noted, however, that “we are unaware of a comparable attempt to use gabions and berms for the sole purpose of ecological restoration along >10 km of arroyo channels draining watersheds on the order of ~400 km2 and larger.”
Research to develop detailed topographic surveys using terrestrial and airborne laser detection and remote sensing, coupled with hydrological modeling, field observation, and stream-flow sensors is providing data on the impacts of restoration efforts on sediment and hydrology (Delong & Henderson, 2012; Henderson & DeLong, 2012; Jemison et al., 2012).
Remote sensing monitoring by the U.S. Geological Survey of Rancho San Bernardino shows vegetation growth around gabions and berms despite documented drought. Comparing gabions used for urban flood control in the Mexican border city of Nogales with those at San Bernardino, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Arizona posited that the success or failure of gabion structures is closely related to the goals of installation, noting that the gabion dams on Rancho San Bernardino were constructed for riparian restoration not flood control (Gass et al., 2013). USGS members observed that a combination of restorative practices “has successfully restored ecosystem function to riparian corridors in this once lost, but not forgotten cieñega wetlands” (L. Norman, personal communication, March 2014).
DeLong and Henderson (2012) concluded that the interactions between engineering, sedimentation, flood hydrology, and vegetation growth contribute to the resilience of the erosion control techniques at Rancho San Bernardino, working together to prevent a serious failure of the gabion dams. DeLong, who has been monitoring erosion control at the San Bernardino Ranch since 2007, observed that “some of these techniques can be more broadly applied to stabilize subsurface and surface water resources throughout other dry regions”. DeLong and Henderson (2012) suggested that the continuing quantification of restoration efforts at San Bernardino “may prove useful in guiding similar large-scale ecological restoration efforts in degraded dryland landscapes.”
Despite the drought — including the declining winter precipitation in the Chiricahua Mountains — water is returning to this degraded landscape (Broska, 2009). In large part, the reduction of the erosive scouring of the landscape during extreme rain events during the monsoon seasons is increasing the availability of seasonal and permanent water (Radke, 2013). When hosting a delegation of some twenty visiting ranchers from neighboring Chihuahua at the San Bernardino Ranch on October 12, 2013, Valer Austin explained that the end objective of the gabions and trincheras was not to collect surface water but rather to restore a landscape that absorbs rather than sheds water — “to function like a sponge” (V. Austin, personal communication).
Among the signature achievements of CLO and the Rancho San Bernardino restoration project is the recolonizing of the upstream and downstream wetlands with native fish without the need for active reintroduction projects (Radke, 2013). Surveys during 2008-2011 documented the presence of six of the eight Río Yaqui native fishes in the San Bernardino Creek, pointing to the success of CLO’s restoration work in slowing erosion, raising groundwater levels, and giving rise to dense stands of cattail and bulrush along the once barren creek (C.O. Minckley, 2013).
Researchers from the Universidad de Sonora have documented the increasing biodiversity on Rancho San Bernardino as part of a plan to have the ranch designated as a privately owned wildlife reserve. The researchers concluded that the “huge change” at the ranch — which has a “history of agriculture and livestock exploitation beyond the capacity of recovery” — in the retention of sediment and water has resulted in the attraction of many diverse species of mammals and birds. Monitoring over short periods documented the presence of 85 bird species (Cárdenas-García & Olguín-Villa, 2013) and 26 species of mammals (Bonillas-Monge & Valdez-Coronel, 2013).
The impact of livestock on the aridlands of this transborder region is a subject of debate amongst environmentalists, government agencies, and the ranching community. To a large degree, this debate is about differing philosophies and priorities. Environmentalists who prioritise biodiversity and the restoration of natural habitats generally oppose grazing cattle on public lands and in stressed ecosystems (Brown & McDonald, 1995). Others, including sectors of the environmentalist community, argue that livestock can play a critical role in maintaining and restoring healthy desert grasslands, especially when ranchers adopt holistic range management techniques (Schwartz, 2013). The “Working Wilderness” slogan of the Malpai Borderlands Group (Sayre, 2005) is emblematic of a highly contested land-management philosophy positing that healthy open landscapes depend on livestock grazing by spreading seed, making soil more permeable to water, and keeping grasses trimmed and growing.
Recent research about land conditions subsequent to cattle removal in sections of the San Bernardino Valley helps inform this discussion (R.L. Minckley, 2013). For the past three centuries, livestock have been a constant feature on this arid and semi-arid landscape. The removal of cattle by USFWS in the early 1980s in the newly created San Bernardino refuge and across the border by CLO in 1999 presented Robert Minckley with the opportunity to study the impact of cattle on the spectrum — riparian, grassland, and desert shrub — of desert habitats in the San Bernardino Valley. As might be expected, the comparative survey found that vegetation responds rapidly to reduced grazing or no grazing in areas with surface water, leading to habitats “with great vertical development not previously found or barely present in grazed areas” (ibid.: 321). Minckley noted that in the areas of the refuge and CLO’s Rancho San Bernardino with water “the capture of carbon in thick tree trunks is greatly increased, and the litterfall and carbon addition to soils and watercourses is increased manifold” (ibid.: 321).
Speaking in Spanish to groups of Mexican preparatory students on a 2013 field trip to Rancho San Bernardino that I witnessed (see Figure 2), Valer Austin offered a concise narrative sweep of the region’s exploitative history. “For the last couple of hundred years, we humans have been taking, taking, always taking from nature,” she observed, “and now it’s our time to start giving back.”
CLO has increasingly insisted that sustainability strategies must extend beyond a narrow focus on land protection. Conservation and restoration efforts should “address the environmental, social and economic challenges of the region in a strategic and integrated fashion” (CLO, 2008: 2) Furthermore, “The area needs to be protected as a wildlife corridor…. [But] the border region should also be an area of rich cultural exchange between people of two nations. Instead it has become a zone of contention.” CLO says that it “hopes that this effort would be seen as an alternative to the many top-down, security-driven actions being implemented by the U.S. government on the border at great cost to local communities, the environment, and cross-border cooperation” (ibid.: 3).
As the land heals from overgrazing and interventionist restorative techniques, CLO is reaching out to its Sonoran and Chihuahua neighbors with proposals to participate in Borderlands Restoration, a CLO partner, terms “community-based collaborative” land restoration” (Pulliam, nd). These collaborative initiatives include a partnership with Don Cuco Sotol, which produces and markets sotol liquor. CLO invited the family enterprise with an international market to harvest fleshy hearts of the agave-like sotol plant in the Sierra San Luìs. In return, the family has agreed to take measures to ensure that the natural rates of sotol growth are maintained.
CLO is also cultivating native grasses and experimenting with seed harvesting with the intention of fostering a social enterprise that markets these native grass seeds — which currently are only available from U.S. distributors. CLO, working closely with Borderlands Restoration L3C, is also exploring plans to cultivate and distribute desert plants that attract hummingbirds and other pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, and bats — all of which have experienced habitat loss as a result of desertification.
Another hopeful sign that a restoration economy is emerging can be found south of Rancho San Bernardino in the Ejido 18 de Agosto. During a November 21, 2012 visit, ejido representative Marcelino Alfaro and other community members recounted in personal communication how the ejidatarios initially opposed CLO’s restoration project, fearing that CLO’s restoration projects were capturing scarce water, thus further limiting their own access to surface and subsurface water. Today, however, the ejidatarios are erecting their own trincheras and gabions, while reporting that the Río San Bernardino is once again running year-round through their land and well levels have stabilized or risen despite the record-breaking drought.
The restoration initiatives of CLO are part of an emerging and evolving framework of collaboration and governance involving public and private actors on both sides of the border.
On the U.S. side, the most influential private participants in the emerging governance are CLO, The Nature Conservancy, Sky Island Alliance, Borderlands Restoration, Animas Foundation, and the Malpai Borderlands Group. Many of the ranchers associated with the Malpai Borderlands Group sign “conservation easements” in which private foundations compensate the ranchers for the development potential of their ranch, thus giving them an incentive to maintain their ranching lifestyle, not sell their land, and keep the rangeland from being subdivided (Sayre, 2005). Working closely with these private groups are U.S. and state agencies that are major stakeholders in the region such as the U.S. Geological Survey, Natural Resources and Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Arizona Game and Fish Department.
On the Mexican side, since the late 1990s CLO has broken new ground in establishing working agreements and forging common restoration agendas with an impressive array of local, state, and federal agencies, including Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) National Forest Commission, National Ecology Institute, National Commission for Protected Areas, among others, and winning Mexican governmental and university awards in the process. With respect to advancing its vision for restoring the entire Río Yaqui and Sierra Madre Occidental wildlife corridor, CLO also works closely with the Mexican NGOs Pro-Natura and Naturalia, both of which have established nature refuges along the western flanks of the Sierra Madre Occidental in Sonora. Ranchers from the region now visit Rancho San Bernardino to learn about CLO’s erosion control and grassland restoration projects and methodologies.
Chihuahua ranchers standing on gabions at Rancho San Bernardino see how this type of erosion control is filling in incised arroyo with sediment and contributing to revegetation of formerly barren channel
As CLO is drawing increased national and international attention because of its cutting-edge on the San Bernardino ranch, discussion is turning to the many unanswered questions about drylands restoration and to the challenges of maintaining and expanding CLO’s work.
Two unanswered questions raised by the Rancho San Bernardino experiment are: What is the relationship between increased surface water on the ranch and groundwater levels, and by extension to the regeneration of the desert grasslands? Can restorative techniques endurably replace deeply rooted woody desert shrubs with native grasses, and would such a project pass a cost-benefit evaluation?
There are also pressing questions about cattle and the restoration of aridlands. If the principal goal of large-scale restoration of desert landscapes is to restore entire ecosystems and associated wildlife corridors, what role, if any, do livestock have in contributing to this goal? A more practical question faced by ranchers and land managers is whether the livestock industry is economically sustainable as surface and subsurface water diminishes, droughts persist, and temperatures rise.
Although the impressive results at Rancho San Bernardino (and on other CLO properties) have made it a model of large-scale restoration of arid and semi-arid landscapes, there are many challenges in sustaining this model, growing it, and replicating it in other regions. These challenges largely revolve around questions about political will, institutional frameworks, and finances.
For the most part, the successes (and shortcomings) of the experiment are almost wholly dependent on the vision, determination, and economic resources of the CLO principals. Can governmental and nongovernmental entities overcome the border divide and create cross-border frameworks and funding mechanisms for maintaining CLO restoration projects well into the future? Can Rancho San Bernardino serve as a pilot project for an ecoregion-wide restoration strategy with diverse biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and sustainable economy goals? If so, what would be the governance frameworks and funding sources for this transborder land restoration? Can transborder collaboration on land restoration and on building restoration economies supplant border security as a more constructive borderlands paradigm?
Most casual observers of degraded arid and semi-arid landscapes in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico dismiss these drylands as “badlands” or wastelands with little ecological or economic worth. A visit to the San Bernardino Valley — and especially to the land restoration projects of CLO and the neighboring USFWS refuges – would surely alter that impression. Monitoring of these projects by scores of scientists and scholars is also creating a new body of knowledge and literature on drylands restoration that will prove valuable to other large-scale drylands restoration projects around the globe.