A Mexican water expert on what Arizona can learn from Hermosillo

Water policy expert Nicolás Pineda talks to Arizona Luminaria about Hermosillo’s historical struggle to provide a boom city with enough water

Nicolás Pineda, professor of public policy at the Colegio de Sonora, Hermosillo, Sonora, México. Behind him is the artificial lake that partially supplies Hermosillo’s drinking water. Credit: John Washington

By John Washington | AZ Luminaria | July 21, 2023

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As severe water scarcity becomes an increasingly real and increasingly dire prospect for Arizona, looking south to Sonora offers important insight. Understanding the experience of our neighboring Mexican state in recent decades could also help steer Arizona towards a more responsible – and less dry – future. 

To learn more about the water challenges Sonora has long faced and how they mirror those in our state, Arizona Luminaria spoke with Nicolás Pineda, professor of public policy at the Colegio de Sonora, Hermosillo, Sonora, México. His research focuses on water policy and urban water governance in México and the U.S.-México border region.

“We can learn from Arizona, and maybe Arizona can learn something from Sonoran towns as well,” Pineda says.

Hermosillo, the state capital, used to be known as Pitic, an Indigenous Seri word meaning “where the rivers meet.” It was a place where “you could have access to water all year round,” Pineda says. That’s no longer the case.

Pineda explains the history, and what Hermosillo — one of the hottest cities in all of Mexico — has done to try to guarantee water for its residents and businesses. 

The shallow Abelardo L Rodriguez dam in Hermosillo, Sonora, finished in 1948. The water typically dries up every year in the summer heat.

Sister cities

There are a lot of comparisons to make between Hermosillo and Phoenix, Pineda says. They are both capital desert cities with rivers that can’t provide enough water for consumption. Both cities also continue to grow, and both of their populations contend for water with surrounding agricultural interests. 

“In Hermosillo, we’re seeing increased competition between city dwellers and farmers,” Pineda says. That tension may soon be matched in the Phoenix area.

“The city has a big problem with efficiency,” Pineda says of Hermosillo. Inefficiencies include unaccounted for water — as not all of the houses have meters — and leaks. In total, he says, more than 71 million cubic meters of water are lost in Hermosillo every year. That’s about 19 billion gallons, or enough to fill about 30,000 Olympic size pools.

While major cities in Arizona don’t waste nearly that much water, excessive usage north of the border remains a serious issue. 

With the Colorado River being depleted by a decades-long drought — poignantly made clear by the “bathtub ring” left around Lake Mead — the agriculture industry, which uses more than 70% of Arizona’s water, will have to act fast to adapt to hotter conditions and less water accessibility. 

Paul Brierley, Director of Arizona Department of Agriculture, told Arizona Luminaria that rising temperatures, and the region’s decades-long drought, will have unexpected impacts as well. 

Heat and limited water “change the equation a little bit about the types of pests and plant diseases we see,” Brierley said. He added that the crops themselves farmers grow may have to change. 

A May 2021 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that a two degrees Celsius increase in temperature would effectively “eliminate profits from the average acre of current farmland in the eastern U.S.” Farmers in the western U.S. may be better able to adapt, but still face stiff challenges in the summer growing seasons. 

Arizona cities, and their residents, which account for about 22% of total water use in the state, also need to start adapting. While Arizona is ahead of the curve compared to Sonora, “there’s a lot Arizonans should be doing to save more water,” Pineda says.

One of the major problems facing both states is what Pineda calls “pork politics.” In Hermosillo, he explains, the city keeps changing the water directors.  

In Arizona, Gov. Katie Hobbs accused her predecessor, Doug Ducey, of sitting on a report that showed some areas in Phoenix — undergoing a development boom — do not have the mandatory 100-year water supply to continue building. 

The state will begin limiting future growth in some areas around Phoenix. Unchecked urban growth is the major factor in Hermosillo’s water challenges, Pineda says. Understanding how such growth affected the water supply is important, he says, if we are to avoid going completely dry.

A history of water management and mismanagement

Farmers in the valleys around Hermosillo — growing vegetables, cotton and feed crops — started using electric pumps in the late 1940s and ‘50s, Pineda explains, as they began developing agriculture in the area between the city and the Gulf of California, about 80 miles west. At the time, the pumps were drilled down about 7 meters below the surface to dip into the aquifer. 

Today, wells have to be drilled down to about 120 meters below the earth to reach the aquifer. And some of the water, in recent years, is coming up brackish, meaning the aquifer is so depleted that it’s below sea level, and has been tinged with salt water. 

To deal with a burgeoning urban population and more farmers — beginning to grow wheat as well — the city built the Abelardo L Rodriguez dam, finishing it in 1948. 

The dam was originally intended to store water for farmers, but it was poorly designed, critics have long contended. “They say it’s a very bad dam because it’s basically a large mirror and the water evaporates,” Pineda says. “It has very little depth and, especially in the summer, it dries up completely.”

In the 1970s the city started pumping dam water into residential pipes as well. There were about 80,000 people living in Hermosillo at the time, but demand was increasing. 

The population now almost reaches a million.  

The area around the San Miguel River, which curves its way through downtown Hermosillo, frequently flooded, causing a problem for the growing city. So, in the 1980s and 1990s, “the city urbanized the river,” Pineda says, turning what was a frequently flooding and often muddy waterway into a cement chute. But, Pineda says, controlling water with concrete — both the dam and the paved riverbottom — didn’t match the growing demand for water. 

Looking for water elsewhere

“The focus has always been on supply,” Pineda says. “If there’s not enough water, you need to bring more water, but we’re trying to refocus on ‘demand management,’ and not just bring more water to meet constantly growing needs.”

Hermosillo uses as much water as Tijuana, Pineda offers as an example. And yet Tijuana has a population of about four times as large as the Sonoran city. Leaks and inefficiencies are the primary culprit of Hermosillo’s over-usage, Pineda says.

The San Miguel river, which was “urbanized” in the 1980s and 90s to control flooding, trickles through downtown Hermosillo.

Water shortages in the late 1990s and 2000s led Hermosillo officials to implement the first “tandeos,” or water restrictions, cutting off water to parts of the city for a few hours every day. “It was a problem with the city growing too fast,” Pineda says.

“Mismanagement and bad planning made things worse,” he says. The restrictions helped, but, with a still-growing population, it wasn’t enough.

In 2010, the Sonoran government proposed the construction of an aqueduct which would transport water from the Yaqui River, about 80 miles away, to Hermosillo. Critics, among them members of the Yaqui tribe, said that developers failed to consult relevant local stakeholders and were illegally pushing forward on the project. 

The Independencia Aqueduct, which started flowing in 2013, now accounts for 20% of Hermosillo’s water. 10% comes from the nearby dam, and the remaining 70% comes from wells — which continue to suck up the depleting aquifer. Even with the aqueduct running, it’s still not enough. 

“Could something like CAP be built in Hermosillo?” Pineda asks.

The Central Arizona Project aqueduct, commonly known as CAP is a more than 300-mile system of built waterways that carries water from Northern Arizona to Phoenix, Tucson, and elsewhere.

The project was enormously expensive and largely funded by the federal government. Given the exorbitant costs, and necessary local, state and federal cooperation, “something like CAP is just not possible in México right now,” Pineda says.

Catching water, and using less of it

One small effort – not the ultimate solution but what Pineda says is still important to start scaling back usage and raising consciousness – is rainwater harvesting. 

“There is zero water harvesting in Hermosillo,” Pineda says. Hermosillo should follow the models of Tucson and other places, he says. 

Tucson mayor Regina Romero has been vocal about the city’s ambitious climate action plan, with a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045. Part of the plan, Romero says, includes “investing in urban shade, capturing rainwater to grow trees and native vegetation, promoting infill and transit-oriented development, and piloting cool pavement technologies.” 

The consumption of water in desert cities spikes in the summer, Pineda says, by as much as 30% per person. At the same time, both Hermosillo and Phoenix act as heat traps, with temperatures blistering in the “islands of concrete,” Pineda says, which yet further increases water demand.

Most of Hermosillo’s efforts at developing a better water management system, focus on the agricultural sector.

Farmers in Sonora have begun changing to drip irrigation. Similarly, Yuma area farmers, among others in Arizona, are also implementing more water efficient growing systems

All of the above, “and a lot more,” must be undertaken, Pineda says, for Hermosillo and Arizona’s desert cities to survive. In recent years, the water in the Hermosillo dam has dropped so low that they were days away from not being able to deliver water through city pipes.

In 2022, with another water crisis pending, Hermosillo officials set out to repair wells, install more water meters, provide reserve tanks, and implement electronic leak detection equipment. Not until August, when sufficient rainfall finally hit the city, could residents rest assured they’d have enough water through the end of the year.

Hermosillo could soon dry up even more and simply not have enough water to pump through the pipes. “Those risks exist,” Pineda says. He pointed to Monterrey, in northeastern México, which has had to limit water usage for certain residents. 

Though he doesn’t expect water rationing to hit Arizona any time soon, it’s not out of the question. Arizonans have never faced water restrictions, Pineda says, though Tucson has recently taken other steps to decrease water usage, including banning ornamental grass, among other water saving incentives. 

For now, Pineda says everyone in the entire borderlands region should be more water conscious.

“If we’re more efficient, we can survive longer,” Pineda says. 

Drinking the ocean?

With more than two-thirds of the planet covered in water, albeit salty, many have wondered whether our oceans could be a solution to water shortages. But desalination, or taking the salt out of salt water is not the solution for Sonora or Airzona, Pineda says. 

“I think they’d kill the Sea of Cortez,” he says. “They’d release too much brine back into the sea, throwing off the equilibrium.”

An Israeli company, IDE Technologies, proposed in late 2022 a $5 billion desalination plant to be built in the resort city of Puerto Peñasco — the popular vacation destination also known as Rocky Point — which would pump water hundreds of miles away, all the way up to Phoenix. 

In a 2022 report to the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona, IDE proclaimed that adding a new source of water to Arizona would be a boon for both farmers and cities in the state. 

It would also “benefit the sensitive ecosystem of the lower reach of the Colorado River.” The company touted the benefits to Sonora, as not all of the water would have been heading to Arizona. Though there was some initial support for the idea on both sides of the border, Sonoran Gov. Alfonso Durazo Montaño has become a staunch opponent. 

After meeting with envoys from IDE in January, Durazo took to Twitter to say that the potential sale of water was a federal matter, adding that IDE was lacking ethics and he wouldn’t meet with them again. 

“I am going to defend the interests of Sonorans. That is my responsibility,” Durazo said at a late January press conference, describing IDE’s plans as “utter absurdity.” Despite dashing hopes for desalination, the two countries must work together.

Binational water dialogue remains key, Pineda says.

Our drier future

“We share an ecosystem, a climate,” Pineda says of Arizona and Sonora. He says there’s a lot each state can learn from the other, and it’s important to look not just to innovative technologies, but the ways people have long lived in the desert.

Pineda points to the temperature efficiency of adobe as building material, the use of less thirsty native plants, and more thoughtful urban design. 

We may need to revive some older traditions, he says. 

A lot of the people who have moved to Arizona and Sonora over the last half-century or so don’t come from desert environments, Pineda explains. 

“We need to learn from the history of these places, and the people and plants who have long lived here,” he says. 

In other words, looking into the past may be the only way to survive the future.

This article first appeared on AZ Luminaria and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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