Sonoran Water Wars
Solving Sonora's Water Crisis is as Easy
Hydraulic megaprojects will keep Sonora “competitive and
sustainable” and create a “Nuevo Sonora,” according to Governor Padrés. To
advance this vision of a new era of water-based growth and development, Padrés
established Sonora SI (Sistema Integral) as a new semi-autonomous entity that
would supervise some two-dozen water projects – with the clear priority being
several dams, aqueducts, and irrigation projects.
Creating a new hydraulic society will be as easy as A, B, C,
and D, according to Sonora SI. That’s Agua,
Bienestar, Crecimiento, and Desarrollo.
In this rosy scenario, new
hydraulic infrastructure will ensure the delivery of water supplies (Agua), thus producing widespread well
being (Bienestar), economic
growth (Crecimiento), and
Elsewhere, a rising number of local and national
governments, together with international institutions, are turning their focus
away from megaprojects like dams. Instead they are turning their attention to
resource-conservation and climate-adaptation strategies. There is also a new
understanding of the integral connections between healthy ecologies and healthy
societies and cultures.
But with its “integral systems” of infrastructure projects
Sonora seems stuck in the old modernization paradigm. The narrow development
and resource-use strategies of the past are not being reevaluated. In the New
Sonora, social well being, for example, is still closely linked to growth and
Elsewhere, especially in arid zones, citizens and
governments are reevaluating the costs and benefits of hydraulic
megaprojects. Evaporation rates and the
destruction of river-based ecologies and cultures are being considered as part
of cost-benefits assessments of water megaprojects.
The Sonora state government, however, hasn’t lost faith in
hydraulic infrastructure solutions.
Sonora SI boasts that the state government is “reviving the hydraulic
tradition of Mexico and the history of large waterworks projects in Sonora.”
This “important hydraulic infrastructure sustains the life of the state and the
development of its social, economic, and productive activities,” according to
The working premise of Sonora SI for creating the state’s
new hydraulic society is as simple as it is disconcerting: “Water will not be a
limiting factor” not for “this generation or the coming ones.” Although
acknowledging the onset of climate change and the multitude of water crises
facing the state, Sonora SI has concluded that a recommitment to water
megaprojects is the state’s only viable option.[ii]
Sonora SI describes itself / Sonora Si website.
Referring to its hydraulic projects, Sonora SI proclaims:
“In this way, water in Sonora will
become the motor of our development. Water will make us much more competitive.
Water will also ignite new industrial and commercial operations that will
generate employment and opportunities.”
Whether this type of positive thinking about the future of
water in the transborder region is visionary, as the Sonoran government claims,
or fantastical is not a question that getting much consideration in Sonora –
aside from small circles of academics and environmentalists. For the most part,
Sonorenses are hoping that the government’s hydraulic interventions save them
from a future of grim scenarios where desert cities and economies wither for
lack of water.
The term sustainability
does appear in the discourses of Sonora SI and Governor Padrés. But the term is
never defined, and it is invariably connected to concepts such as
competitiveness and growth. Whatever the rhetoric of Governor Padrés and Sonora
SI, the reality is that over the past several years Sonora SI -- in close
collaboration with Conagua and with federal funding -- initiated large water
projects without first consulting affected communities or serious evaluating
likely impacts on ecological systems.
What is more, neither the federal nor state government considered
the possible adverse impacts on the indigenous communities -- Yaquis, Mayos,
and Guajiríos – of Sonora SI’s dams and aqueducts. There was no prior
consultation, as mandated by national and international laws and conventions,
with the indigenous communities whose land and water will be affected by these
megaprojects. The three water megaprojects prioritized by Governor Padrés --
Independencia aqueduct, Revolución aqueduct, and Pilares dam – all deeply
impact the ancestral and legally established rights of these indigenous peoples
who have long depended on the flows of the Yaqui and Mayo Rivers.
The modernization paradigm embodied in the water
megaprojects of Sonora SI has also excluded any broader pre-project discussion
of how the bienestar of healthy communities
is closely related to the health of the environment.
Scholars and environmentalists variously describe this
connection between societies and the environment as biocultural diversity,
biocultural evolution, cultures of habitat, or cultural sustainability.[iii]
Water planners in Sonora and elsewhere in the transborder
West would do well to consider the links between healthy societies, cultures,
and environments. By doing so, governments would likely avoid igniting water
wars. They might also help prevent more
of type of socio-environmental disasters – often related to water use patterns
and water shortages -- that are occurring throughout Sonora– from the river
valleys to the coastal plains, from the cities to endangered rural communities.
Scholars at the Colegio de Sonora examined the issue of
water for indigenous communities in Sonora. Their report observed: “One can
observe the pattern of dislocation of indigenous people from their traditional
homeland and from their natural resources, and that conflicts over water for
subsistence are becoming increasingly severe – all of which exacerbates the
vulnerability of these communities and the disintegration of their traditional
"Orgullo de Sonora," Gobierno de Sonora's
map of Native Indigenous Territories
Sonora’s New Hydraulic Society
There are four major thrusts of the water megaprojects of
Sonora SI: Dams, aqueducts, water-treatment plants, improving potable water
systems, and increasing reach of irrigation networks.[v]
* Providing new sources of water to urban centers
in desert and in water-depleted deltas, including Hermosillo, Alamos,
Huatabampo, Etchojoa, Navajoa, and Nacozari de García.
* Sonora SI is also overhauling the Río
Yaqui-Guaymas aqueduct and battery of pumps that supply it even as agrochemical
contamination and salinization of the soil worsen.
* Aqueducts will be built to conduct water from
existing dams, notably from El Novillo on the Yaqui River and from Mocúzari on
the Mayo River, the Independencia and Revolución aqueducts, respectively.
According to Sonora SI’s vision, “Aqueducts are indispensable to distribute
water equitably and responsibly among all Sonorans.”
* In some cases, new dams will be constructed,
including the Bicentenario (Pilares) dam on the Mayo River and a few
much-smaller dams and embalses including
the Centenario dam near Narcozari de García and in the remote Las Trincheras
area near Altar in the state’s northwestern territory (where there are new gold
Water-Treatment of Waste and Residual Water
* Provide new sources of water or better quality
water to Hermosillo, Guaymas, Nogales, Puerto Peñasco, and Navajoa by
constructing water-treatment plants.
Drinking Water Infrastructure Projects
* Building a desalinization plant in the tourist
town of San Carlos.
* Overhauling water-delivery systems in Cananea
and Puerto Peñasco.
Expanding and Improving Drylands Agriculture
* Assist the agricultural sector throughout
western Sonora by improving irrigation canals (including in Yaqui and Mayo
deltas, and outside Guaymas), by new dams that stop flooding in the monsoon
season, and by expanding the “agricultural frontier” in Sonora.
* Providing water to all Sonorans in an “equitable
and responsible” way will not involve any reduction of water to the
agricultural sector – which consumes 92.3% of Sonora’s water. There will be no
reduction in agricultural production in the state, states Sonora SI.
the hydraulic projects will “open new frontiers” to cultivation. In particular,
the waterworks program will expand the irrigation districts that that currently
draw on the Mayo and Fuerte Rivers in the southern corner of the state –
bringing as much as 73,000 hectares into cultivation.
No doubt that Sonora SI and Governor Padrés are right to
identify water as the state’s main challenge. Yet the picture that Sonora SI
paints of a state that is moving forward to improve the lots of its residents
and to overcome the water crises that besiege the state seems far removed from
the reality of many Sonorenses – particularly the poor and indigenous.
Yaqui men gather for tribal meeting at Vícam Estación,
site of Yaqui blockade of Highway #15 / Photo by Tom Barry
Sonora SI, “Acueducto Independencia,” Fondo de Operación de Obras, August 2012,
Sonora SI, “Acueducto Independencia,” Fondo de Operación de Obras, August 2012,
Luque, Diana et al, “Pueblos indígenas de
Sonora: el agua, ¿es de todos?” Región y
, No.3, 2012. For an excellent treatment of this biocultural
framework for sustainability (with field studies of Seris and Tohono O’, see:
Gary Paul Nabhan, Cultures of Habitat: On
Nature, Culture, and Story
(Counterpoint, 1997). For a broader treatments,
see, among others: E. Boege, El
patrimonio biocultural de lost pueblos indígenas
, Mexico, INAH, 2008; Luisa
Maffi, On Biocultural Biodiversity:
, Knowledge and the Environment, Smithsonian Institute
Luque, Diana et al, “Pueblos indígenas de Sonora: el agua, ¿es de todos?” Región y Sociedad
, No.3, 2012.
Sonora SI, “Folleto Sonora SI,” at: http://issuu.com/gobiernosonora/docs/folleto-sonorasi?e=3267347/4339871#search