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Zapotillo Dam opponents find support from key federal official – but not Mexico’s president

Mexican Environment Minister Víctor Toledo appears to agree with many experts that the stalled Zapotillo Dam in north-eastern Jalisco is an unviable project that should be scrapped.

pg5aDuring a visit this week to Temacapulín – the small town that could disappear underwater if the dam proceeds – Toledo heard the opinions of various experts in hydraulic matters, including University of Guadalajara researcher Arturo Gleason, who argued that instead of dams Jalisco requires an integrated water resources management strategy, which utilizes all resources available, including recycled water, rainwater, stormwater, wastewater and groundwater, in ways that support the sustainability of communities. Gleason noted that Guadalajara receives 5.4 cubic meters of rainwater each second, compared to the three cubic meters that the Zapotillo Dam would offer. Without any systems in place to capture this resource, the rainwater simply disappears into the city’s drains, he said.

Meanwhile, Juan Guillermo Márquez, director of the Observatorio Ciudadano del Agua, explained that the farming industry in the Los Altos region of Jalisco would be seriously affected by the loss of up to a billion cubic meters of essential water if the dam went ahead.

Mexico’s environment secretary agreed that advances in technology are making dams obsolete.

But Toledo told the experts opposing the Zapotillo dam that the only way to convince President Manuel Lopez Obrador to cancel the project would be to demonstrate exactly how a strategy of “Integrated Water Resources Management’ – as defined by the Global Water Partnership – could work in practice.   

In a statement at the beginning of July, Lopez Obrador confirmed that work on Zapotillo will resume shortly.

pg5bDuring a visit to Guadalajara in mid July, Jalisco business leaders urged Lopez Obrador to keep his word and get the dam finished.

And this week, following Toledo’s comments, Rubén Masayi González Uyeda, the president of Jalisco’s Council of Industrial Chambers, again pleaded with the president to finish the dam, stressing that the water “will be for everyone, not just industry.”

Work on the Zapotillo Dam began in 2009 but ground to a halt in 2014 after opponents were granted legal injunctions limiting its height to 80 meters. This would have saved Temacapulín and two smaller villages from inundation but engineers argued – and still do – that the dam needed to be 105 meters tall to provide the maximum benefit.

Under agreements signed decades ago, more than two-thirds of the water from the dam would have been pumped to Leon, Guanajuato. Metro-area Guadalajara and the rural region around the dam would have received a much smaller share.

This has always been a bone of contention in this state. However, last May, Jalisco Governor Enrique Alfaro and his Guanajuato counterpart, Diego Sinhue Rodríguez, revisited the accords and inked a new deal.  Under the new plan, Jalisco will be entitled to about 74 percent of the Rio Verde’s water, and Guanajuato the remainder.

pg5cNews of the agreement irked inhabitants living in the region, who complained they had been excluded from discussions on the deal, which they claimed was done “behind closed doors.” Gathering in Guadalajara last week, representatives of the Union de Pueblos y Organizaciones de Jalisco por el Agua, as well as residents of Temacapulín, signed an unofficial “alternative” agreement for a fairer distribution of water from the Verde River.

Since taking office last December Alfaro has consistently confirmed his support for the Zapotillo Dam, but has stressed it should remain at 80 meters.  He is also seeking funding to complete the half-finished Purgatorio Dam, also located on the Verde River midway between Ixtlahuacan del Rio and Zapotlanejo, about 40 kilometers from the edge of Guadalajara.

This 30-meter curtain dam will have a capacity to hold 3.5 million cubic meters of water. Its cost, however, has spiraled since work began in June 2013 and, according to Jorge Gastón, director of Jalisco’s Gestión Integral del Agua, requires a further $US450 million to complete, including the additional infrastructure required to bring the water to the Guadalajara metropolitan area. The dam originally had a targeted finish date of 2016 and was touted as a means to reduce the dependency on Lake Chapala as a source of potable water.

Whether the Zapotillo Dam will go ahead or not will likely depend on Lopez Obrador maintaining his enthusiasm for the project – as well as budget considerations. As one of Mexico’s most eminent environmentalists, one might have expected Toledo not to support the dam. Exactly how much influence he has on Lopez Obrador is another matter.  Since taking office, the president has shown scant regard for maintaining unity when he disagrees with any of his cabinet members.

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