In 1971, ecologists from all over the world met in the city of Ramsar, Iran to deal with the worsening conditions of wetlands on this planet.
Perhaps they were mainly motivated by the threat to migrating birds posed by the disastrous pollution of marshes and mangroves, but they also opened the world’s eyes to the vital importance of such places, which they call “cradles of biological diversity that provide the water and productivity upon which countless species of plants and animals depend for survival.” Over the years, the list of Ramsar Wetlands has grown, recognizing local conservationists’ efforts to clean up and protect these areas and bringing them much needed support and resources from abroad.
Jalisco presently has 13 Ramsar sites. The most recently added to the list is Presa La Vega (Dam), located 40 kilometers due west of Guadalajara. On February 7, members of the technical committee for the integral management of Presa La Vega, such as the Jalisco State Water Commission and several other groups, organized a series of events at La Vega to bring people up to date on what has been accomplished there and to lay out the problems that still need to be resolved.
The first event of the day was a birdwatching session at the south end of the lake. More than 50 people showed up for this and I believe the great majority of them were as shocked as I was to discover that almost everything we could see of the lake had been turned into a carpet of green water hyacinths, popularly called lirios, which harm marine life by cutting off their oxygen supply.
Walking about on top of the lirios, however, were plenty of water birds like egrets, herons and ibises. But according to birder Chris Lloyd, the most interesting birds he spotted that morning were a Rose-throated Becard and a Bell’s Virio.
Identifying most of the birds around us was easy, thanks to a 14-page booklet entitled “Aves de la Presa La Vega,” which was passed out to all the participants by Sofía Hernández Morales of the State Water Commission. The booklet, explained Hernández, contains color photos and names (in English, too!) of 78 of the 149 species of birds that frequent the lake and is available free of charge from the Commission (see below).
From the dam, participants drove to the little town of La Vega where a program of events took place at an old train station. One of the presenters was biologist Roberto Dávila of PROCCMA, a group dedicated to promoting culture and ecology. “What’s so important about La Vega Dam?” I asked him.
“It’s because of three things,” replied Dávila. “First, this lake feeds the Ameca River, which flows all the way to Banderas Bay near Puerto Vallarta. This river, which forms most of the border between Jalisco and Nayarit, provides food for a huge number of people living along its banks and sustains the Boca de Tomates Estuary, a very important mangrove site. And, of course, the lake, the river and the estuary are home to certain endangered birds, reptiles, fish and mammals, such as the otters now living in Presa La Vega. They are considered indicators of the quality of an ecosystem, because wherever you find healthy, happy otters, you will find a whole chain of thriving flora and fauna. By the way, it was recently discovered that one of the food sources for these otters is a little fish called the Golden Skiffia, which the whole world had thought was extinct in the wild. This fish gives birth live to live young and its natural habitat was the Teuchitlán River.”
Dávila told me that La Vega Lake still faces many pollution problems, but that things have been improving since it became a Ramsar site in 2010. “Raw sewage flows into the lake from nearby towns, but several have already built treatment plants and things are improving. The Tala Sugar Refinery used to dump all its waste products into the lake—a river of black—but now the effluents look more like ordinary water and the contamination has been reduced by 50 percent.”
Roberto Dávila also showed me the contents of an imaginative booklet, Gazeta Ecologica, which PROCCMA will soon print and distribute. In the Gazeta, themes related to La Vega are presented by Amy the Fish, Pepe the Pelican and Lolo the Otter.
Those who attended the event at the train station — including many children — participated in workshops, watched a puppet show and, wearing special glasses, got to see an exhibit of 3D photos of wetlands and their flora and fauna. They also discovered that the infamous lirio can be collected and turned into adobe bricks and all kinds of wickerwork. The mayor of La Vega, Armando Andrade, announced that his administration has received funds to restore the old train station, outside of which all these events were taking place, and to turn it into a cultural center where, he said, “We’ll be able to hold expositions and workshops like this one indoors. We hope to complete this project before this coming October.”
How to get there
An excellent place to appreciate La Vega Lake and see plenty of water birds is the Teuchitlán Walking Trail described on page 44 of my Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area. To get there from Lake Chapala, take the Circuito Sur west from Ajijic to Tala. From Guadalajara you can reach Tala via highway 15 to Nogales and highway 70. At 1.4 kilometers southwest of the Tala overpass, you’ll find highway 4 leading to Teuchitlán. Just before the Teuchitlán gas station turn left (south) onto a road filled with restaurants. Drive only 650 meters down this road and you are at the Andador La Vega, where you can begin your walk along a narrow walkway with a marsh on one side and the lake on the other. It’s unique.