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Dry lakes and dry taps: Nuevo León faces its worst water crisis in decades

Monterrey’s three main reservoirs are at 43%, 9% and 1% capacity, and some metropolitan area residents are starting to count the months they’ve gone without water in the pipes.

MONTERREY, Mexico (CN) — Patricia Palacios hasn’t had running water for nearly 50 days. Instead, she waits for the city water authority tanker that comes to her neighborhood two to three times a week to fill the array of tubs and buckets she now uses instead of plumbing. 

“It really is miserable,” said the 65-year-old retired biologist while chatting with a neighbor as they wait for their turn with the tanker. “I have them all labeled — this one for the bathroom, that one for [another room] — and as soon as they’re filled I take them straight to the part of the house where I’ll use them.”

The Monterrey metropolitan area, which includes her city of General Escobedo, is suffering the worst water crisis it has seen in decades. And while most of its more than 5 million residents have running water at least a few hours a day due to restrictions imposed by the metropolitan water authority, the taps in her somewhat isolated neighborhood have been dry for nearly two months.

As part of a neighborhood council that reports their water needs to the city, Palacios now spends up to four hours of her day helping administer water among the neighbors each time the tanker comes.

“There’s no schedule. We have to request the water when we need it,” she said.

Monterrey area resident Patricia Palacios gets the tubs and buckets she uses to administer water ready to fill on July 1, 2022. She and her neighbors have gone nearly two months without running water. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

The water restrictions and tankers are part of several desperate measures the metropolitan area’s water authorities have taken to confront the shortage, which was caused by a combination of drought, excessive water use and bad planning. 

The three main reservoirs that supply the area with water are currently at 43%, 9% and 1% capacity, according to Mexico’s National Water Commission, whose latest data reveal that 53% of the country is experiencing some level of drought. Another 19.5% of the country is classified as abnormally dry. 

“Monterrey hasn’t seen a drought like this in 30 years,” said Juan Ignacio Barragán, director of the city’s water and drainage department. 

In addition to restricting water access to just five hours a day, Barragán’s department is scrambling to plug up leaks in the area’s aging water infrastructure, trying to combat water theft and promoting water-saving practices like not watering lawns and shutting off the tap when brushing teeth or soaping up in the shower.

“Lawns have no practical value, they’re just aesthetic,” said Barragán. “That’s the kind of culture we have to change. There are very simple things we can do to save water that in no way negatively affect our quality of life.”

El Flotante, a restaurant that used to float in the middle of the La Boca reservoir, sits among a field of newly sprouted weeds on the dry lakebed on July 2, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

But what he really needs is rain. For that, Monterrey has turned to cloud seeding, a process of spraying clouds with a mixture of silver iodide and acetone to induce precipitation. 

Once controversial due to a lack of scientific data to back up the technique, recent studies have proven that cloud seeding can be an effective way to encourage stubborn clouds to let loose. The silver iodide works as ice nuclei, solid particles onto which water vapor can condense in order to fall as rain. 

“It’s not witchcraft, it’s science,” said Barragán. 

Climatologist Tereza Cavazos confirmed that the technique does work, but said that such measures are difficult to control — the rain cloud seeding generates may not go where it is needed— and don’t have the same benefits that proper planning for the future would have. 

“The problem with the government and many institutions is that they are reactive,” said Cavazos. “If there’s a problem, they try to fix it, but they don’t see the long-term solutions.”

That lack of prescience is one of three factors that led to the current water crisis. 

“This is partly a seasonal drought, but also a hydrological one, due to the poor management of water distribution,” said Cavazos. 

Natural factors include the phenomenon known as La Niña, the periodic cooling of ocean surface temperatures that creates drier than normal winters. And while winter rains generally don’t bring as much water to the region as the summer hurricane season, the cold fronts that Nuevo León relies on to produce them went further east than usual this winter. 

Rain is expected in August, when the Atlantic hurricane season kicks into high gear, but Cavazos said that the dry conditions are also something people here will just have to get used to in a changing climate. 

Monterrey area resident Eliezer Garza waits while city employees fill a neighbor's water tanks. He and the others in this somewhat isolated area now go through this process two to three times a week. (Cody Copeland)

“We need to adapt to these changes, because they are real, and with climate change there will be more extremes,” she said. “Summers will be hotter and require more water and energy, so it’s important to have different measures to be efficient with these resources, to look for renewable sources of energy and improve the infrastructure of water distribution and the way we use water in the region.”

It’s a lesson that residents in General Escobedo are learning the hard way. 

“Maybe this will make people more aware,” said Eliezer Garza, 75, who lives a block away from Patricia Palacios. “We now know how to make better use of water, to get more out of it. We aren’t wasteful with it anymore.”

Unlike his neighbor, Garza has a 264-gallon tank to store the water brought by the city, but he and his family have drastically changed their lifestyle to adapt to the scarcity. They capture mop and dishwater to reuse in their toilets, and his 24-year-old grandson Jonathan has had to learn to get through the 97-degree heat on one daily shower, rather than his normal two. 

“We hope everyone else has learned this lesson, too, because it’s a tough one to learn,” said Garza. “You can go without other things, but water is totally indispensable to everyday life.”

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