The southwestern United States has finally recognized that a severe drought condition exists and predictions for the next 12 months have been released by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. The attached figure shows that for most of California and Northern Baja California there is essentially a 100% probability that rainfall will be below normal for the year.
Small yellow areas of the figure indicate that the probability is around 50% that rainfall will be below normal. (White areas indicate near normal precipitation). These predictions are in line with what all of the major forecasting organizations and weather prediction centers are saying.
In the border cities of Tijuana, Tecate and Mexicali, water is piped in from the Colorado River and their supply is assured for the foreseeable future by international treaty. In the other cities of Baja, however, water comes from the underground aquifers which rely on recharge by rainfall in the mountains which form the backbone of the peninsular.
San Felipe pumps its water from the area just inland from Punta Estrella where the aquifer comes close to the surface. This underground source of water, sometimes referred to incorrectly as a river, makes its way slowly down the mountain washes towards the sea as it percolates through the sandy soil over periods of decades. When it encounters significant geologic structures, such as the outcrops of Punta Estrella (ancient plugs of old volcanoes), the water backs up and has to flow around the impenetrable rock. This brings it closer to the surface where it is easier to get at, and we see particularly fertile areas such as the valley of the Giant Sahuaro Cacti.
In San Felipe, most families are economical and draw less than 10 cubic meters/month from the water system; typically 60 gallons/day for household use. By contrast, the average American family uses more than 300 gallons/day at home with close to 30% of this being used in flushing the toilet and 20% for the washing machine.
When I first built my house here I did not have a connection to the city water system and the “pipa” (water truck) came from town once a month to fill the “pila” (tank) that I built. I managed to live quite well on 15 gallons/day during those years though it did involve some inconveniences.
The cold water that ran before the shower was hot was collected in gallon milk jugs and used to fill the toilet tank after one of the two daily flushes. Dish water went to the garden, as did water from the washing machine which got used only a couple of times a month.
Education of guests that came to visit for the weekend was the most difficult part of the process, they just automatically flushed even when the water was imperceptibly yellow and they always failed my “3 minute shower” edict. There were times when we used an entire months allocation in 3 days!
Water studies conducted several years ago indicated that the existing aquifer here could sustain double the population at that time (year 2000). However, I don’t think it took into account the very heavy use of the precious liquid by Americans. There is no water crisis yet in San Felipe, but it is clear that we all need to save every drop that we can.
Sewage is another critical component in our infrastructure and I want to address it in more detail in another article. However, it is already apparent that the future will require wastewater recycling to be implemented as is now happening in Southern California and in Las Vegas.
Ensenada is much less fortunate than San Felipe and a state of emergency has been declared there as a result of depletion of their aquifer. The prioritization of the wine industry in the Valle de Guadelupe has resulted in a lot of the water for the city being diverted to agricultural use. Water rationing is already in force and many households only get water 3 days per week. Short term, the water company will drill more wells but this will only deplete the meager reserves faster than before. Long term it is inevitable that Ensenada will have to install a very expensive desalination plant to process ocean water. This is likely to be the way that San Felipe will also have to go in future years.