Governor Padrés at pumping station for Independencia aqueduct on Novillo Dam / Government of Sonora
“The water conflict in Sonora will not be the last of these conflicts over water that we will see in Mexico. But it certainly is a new warning of what is coming.”
- Ivan Restrepo, La Jornada
Five years ago a plan for a new water megaproject -- aqueduct transferring water from the Yaqui River to the capital city of Hermosillo -- ignited a water war in the border state of Sonora. The conflict divided the arid northern Mexican state into two diverse and bitterly opposed pro- and anti-aqueduct alliances– with all the diverse contenders claiming that justice and the rule-of-law were on their side.
Intermittent blockades of Sonora's main north-south highway by Yaqui anti-aqueduct militants continue. And the anti-aqueduct ¨No al Novillo¨ coalition gained national support from an array of environmental organizations, anti-water privatization groups, and indigenous solidarity organizations as well as by many progressive intellectuals. Yet the forces in favor of hydraulic solutions to the water demands by the state's leading economic sectors and by the state capital of Hermosillo have prevailed.
On the most basic and superficial level, the transfer of water from the Río Yaqui to Hermosillo (which lies in the depleted Río Sonora/Río San Miguel water basin) was a determination that emerged from the democratic process. In the Mexican political tradition in which governors and presidents launch megaprojects to shape the legacy of their sexenios (six-year governing periods), Governor Guillermo Padrés Elías launched the Sonora SI water infrastructure program a few months after his term began in late 2009.
PAN State-National Dominance and Dissolution
A leading member of the National Action Party in Sonora, Governor Padrés could count on support of then-President Felipe Calderón and the federal agencies under the control of the PAN government in Mexico City. In launching this program of water megaprojects, the new governor was also renewing a history of massive, often badly planned hydraulic projects in Sonora dating back to the early 1940s and continuing into the early 1990s.
The water war began in early 2010 when Guillermo Elías Pádres, the new governor of Sonora, announced his plan for the Independencia aqueduct as part of array of water-distribution infrastructure
projects. The water for Hermosillo comes from a dam in the middle Yaqui River basin, whose official name is
Presa Plutarco Elías Calles. But it is best known as El Novillo, the name of village in the eastern municipio of Soyopa.
The dam and reservoir did increase the water available for irrigation and helped diminish flooding down river. But like most major dams, El Novillo displaced hundreds of people from small towns in the mid-basin of the Yaqui River, and these families continue to demand that the federal government compensate them adequately for losing their land and livelihoods.
The announcement by the state government, with the close collaboration of the federal government, would begin construction of the Independencia aqueduct set off a new configuration of political forces in Sonora based on accelerating tensions between the Valle del Yaqui and Hermosillo.
With PAN and the Hermosillo-based PRD largely supporting the Sonora SI megaprojects including the highly controversial Independencia aqueduct, leading figures within the PRI (which was the leading opposition party both in Sonora and nationally), particularly those based in the Yaqui valley, joined the widening opposition to aqueduct.
The a leading faction of the Yaquis -- an indigenous people legendary throughout Mexico for their fierce resistance to Spanish and Mexican attempts to usurp their water and occupy their homeland -- formed the militant vanguard of Yaqui Valley anti-aqueduct alliance.
The Citizens Water Movement, based in Ciudad Obregón in southern Sonora, counted on the economic and political clout of the agribusiness sector of the Yaqui Valley. But from the beginning the Yaqui and their allies in the anti-aqueduct campaign were fighting a losing battle. Arrayed against them were the aqueduct’s
governmental sponsors along with the residents and industries of Hermosillo, which are Sonora’s state capital and most populous city.
Aside from the power dynamics of the water war, each side is emboldened by strong convictions of entitlement -- with those raising their voices saying “No al Novillo” or “Sí al Independencia” all believing that they had law, reason, and justice on their side.
The north and south highway blockades, where the toll highway passes through the Yaqui town of Vicam north of Cd. Obregón, formed the frontlines of the Yaqui water war (and the continuing although diminished Yaqui protests). Despite tremendous economic and political pressure to let the traffic and commerce flow freely, the Yaquis together with their allies in the “No al Novillo” coalition refused to accede, keeping up the blockades even when summer temperatures soar to 110 or 120 degrees or more. This water war also played out on numerous other fronts, each of which sheds light on the shadows that obscure and diffuse the rule of law and democratic governance in Mexico.
Enough Water to Go Around?
The two opposing sides of the Yaqui water war look at the three dams on the Yaqui River quite differently. The pro-aqueduct “Agua Para Todos” forces, mainly based in government and business in Hermosillo, look at the map of Sonora and see the three largest expanses of surface water in the state situated behind these dams on Yaqui River.
The Independencia backers point to the years of above-average precipitation or periods after the summer monsoon rains. At those times, the reservoirs sometimes capture more water than their cement curtains can contain, obligating CONAGUA and state water managers to release excess water and allowing water to flow into the Gulf of California.
For the agribusiness and industrial sectors of the Hermosillo area and for the city’s domestic water consumers, images of the Yaqui River running into the sea -- as it did before the damming of the river – amounts to a sacrilege, a waste of fresh water in arid land. Voices that note that the health of the Mar de Cortés and its estuaries depend on these flows of rich river water are not part of the water debate in Sonora.
Coursing through their campaign to support the Independencia aqueduct is a sense of injustice that Sonora’s largest river is not more equitably shared.
What aqueduct opponents find so infuriating is that Hermosillo has neither cared for its own water basin nor prioritized the domestic consumption of the water of the Hermosillo municipio, where only 2% of the water is for human consumption while 84% goes to agribusiness in the Costa de Hermosillo and elsewhere in the municipio. While the Novillo-Hermosillo conflict has focused on water flows of the Yaqui River, there has only been passing attention to issues of waste, distribution efficiency, and conservation either in the Yaqui Valley or in Hermosillo. As much as 40% in Hermosillo’s municipal water distribution is lost through leaks that often go unrepaired for days or weeks. Nicolás Pineda Pablos, a professor of public policy at the Colegio de Sonora observed that “the management problem is worse” than the problems posed by the actual supply of water. Prioritization is also a core management problem of limited water resources, according to Pineda. Water managers in Hermosillo or in state government have done virtually nothing to decrease water flows to agribusiness in any of the agribusiness centers of Sonora. “If you want to have big-city growth, you can’t also have agriculture,” Pineda told the New York Times.
In the Yaqui Valley, leaders of the anti-aqueduct campaign opposition insist water in each river basin should remain in that basin. What’s
more they dispute the notion that there is more than enough water in the Yaqui River basin to regularly supply Hermosillo with 30 Mm3 to 75 Mm3 of river water. While not disputing the assertion that the monsoon season can sometimes deliver more rain than the dams can manage, the Yaqui Valley Irrigation District points to the many years in recent decades when the Angostura, Novillo, and Oviáchic reservoirs were far from capacity.
In 2013, for example, the reservoirs on the Yaqui River held 44.9% of their capacity in late June. But ten years previously (2003) the reservoirs contained just 9.2% of their capacity at the same time of the year -- with El Novillo holding just 8.1% of its capacity. Leading figures in the “No al Novillo” coalition have conceded that during wet years there might enough water to channel 75,000 Mm3 to Hermosillo. But in dry years, which are increasingly common, the water consumers in the lower Yaqui River basin would experience severe water shortages, they contend.
The State Water Commission, arguing in favor of the Novillo-Hermosillo aqueduct, contended that even if the aqueduct annually transferred the maximum 75 Mm3 of water to Hermosillo, this would represent 2.5-3% of all the water in the river basin.
Such arguments fail to persuade opponents, who countered that the river was already over-committed and such estimations didn’t consider such factors as increasing and more prolonged droughts, evaporation losses, and unknown quantities of unregulated water extractions by mining companies, ranchers, and farmers.
Both sides in the Yaqui water war took to citing provisions of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution and national water law. The “No al Novillo” campaign noted that national water law, as enshrined in the constitution, considers a water basin as an autonomous unit of property and water that should be managed by a council of basin stakeholders. What they don’t readily acknowledge, however, is that
such basin councils are rare, and, furthermore, there are many cases of inter-basin transfers of water, including in the Mexico City region.
Governor Padrés brandished what has been a winning pro-aqueduct argument for most Sonorans, namely that “Water is now for all Sonoroenses, and not longer for just a few.” It is an argument that resonates with the Mexican Constitution’s guarantee (albeit far from the reality) of potable water access for all Mexicans. Even as support for the governor plummeted in late summer 2014, public support (outside of the Yaqui Valley region) for the governor’s projects to dam and transfer water to water-poor urban and rural areas was little affected -- although the support came coupled with demands that these projects abide by the rule of law.
The city’s commercial, construction, industrial, and agricultural elite and their associations stood at the forefront of statewide campaign in favor of the Novillo-Hermosillo aqueduct. The pro-aqueduct campaign also counted on the support of the State Water Commission (CEA) and Conagua, which provided most of the funds for the aqueduct.
Recognizing that government pro-aqueduct propaganda, along with the imposition of the will and power of the state government, wasn’t enough to dissuade the opposition, the Padrés administration began loosening the state government’s purse strings (along with those of federal grants) to create a legal facade for the draining of the Yaqui River. Typical of Mexico’s governance practices, CEA staring buying water rights from small landholders along the middle Yaqui river basin as well as offering payouts to valley producers who would agree, at least rhetorically, to yield their water rights.
Although CEA led the publicity campaign justifying the transfer of water, the state water commission had the firm backing of CONAGUA during the Calderón administration. In a July 2010 visit to Hermosillo, President Calderón gave the presidential blessing to the assertion by CONAGUA that it had secured almost 52 Mm3 of water from the Yaqui river basin that were not accounted for or distributed and which could therefore be transferred through the planned aqueduct.
According to CONAGUA, this available Yaqui River water could be used to meet “the basic needs of the city and permit its development.” After the Calderón sexenio ended, CONAGUA became pronouncedly more distant from Padrés and CEA. But the federal government under President Enrique Peña Nieto continued granting funds for Sonora SI projects, including aqueducts and dams.
Handing out government funds -- which remain largely unaccounted for -- did create a flimsy legal facade for the transfer of water rights to Hermosillo. Moreover, other government payouts to those who would express support for the aqueduct created divisions in the Yaqui valley, including among Yaquis themselves -- particularly those with a history of working for state government programs.