Rancho Pint - The Mexico Page

Text and Photos ©2016 by J. Pint

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Map of Ahogado and Santiago River System

Map showing flow of Ahogado River (with feeder streams) through Las Pintas Lake, past GDL airport and through swamp, to treatment plant. The river then reaches El Río Santiago and El Salto.

Click to enlarge. 

Dr. José Luis Zavala
Dr. José Luis Zavala, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, on a bridge overlooking 66-kilometer-long Río El Ahogado, a badly polluted stream which runs into the Santiago River. Zavala specializes in biological methods for discovering toxins and hormones in polluted water.

Greenpeace kayaks protest Santiago River pollution at El Salto Waterfall.

Clean El Cajón Lake where the Río Ahogado is born
El Cajon:Biologist José Luis Zavala (left), naturalist Jesús Moreno and geologist Chris Lloyd gaze over the peaceful and perfectly clean waters of El Cajón Lake in Tonalá, which represents the beginning and highest point of Río El Ahogado. The pollution begins immediately below the lake.

Human waste pours into the Ahogado River
Only ten kilometers downstream from El Cajón Lake, the Ahogado River stinks of human excrement.

Ahogado Treatment Plant
The Ahogado Treatment Plant, which has been operating since 2012, is said to remove about 50% of the pollutants in the river.

Río Santiago just upstream of El Salto
Just after the treatment plant, the Santiago River looks clean and peaceful.

coot feeding in Santiago River
A coot feeding in the Santiago River.

fish at El Salto
Fish in the Santiago River at El Salto look in good shape.








Is Guadalajara's most infamous waterfall now clean?

By John Pint

El Salto de Juanacatlán - Is it now clean?

El Salto de Juanacatlán: no more clouds of toxic foam

The 66 kilometer-long Río Ahogado is located southeast of Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, and feeds into the Río Santiago. For years, that which it injected into the Santiago was a noxious mixture of human waste, toxic chemicals and heavy metals. The one point where the true nature of these aguas negras was made visible for all the world to see was a wide waterfall called El Salto de Juanacatlán, where the cascading water churned up billows of toxic foam said to be so corrosive it could remove paint from cars. In 2008, Miguel Ángel López, an eight-year-old boy fell into this disgusting soup and died not of drowning but of swallowing some of the river water which, it was later learned, contained 400 times more arsenic than the highest level permitted.

This state of affairs was all the more notorious because long ago El Salto had been considered one of the glories of Jalisco, “The Niagara of Mexico” and, right up until the 1970s tourists came from far and wide to stand in its spray and marvel at its beauty. Thirty years later, they might have landed in the hospital if not in the morgue.

For years, I had wanted to see this toxic waterfall with my own eyes, but I feared the results of just breathing the air in the neighborhood. Then, only a month ago, I had a chat with a friend, biological researcher José Luis Zavala.

“El Salto?” he said. “You can visit it anytime you want—it's all been cleaned up.” I did a double-take and so did everyone else in the room. “Yes,” he continued, “public outcry over the death of little Miguel Ángel finally spurred officials to do something. They built a 300-million-peso treatment plant and the toxic foam has disappeared.”

“This I've got to see,” I said, coercing José Luis to act as a guide.

human waste draining into Rio Ahogado A few days before Christmas, off we went to follow the course of the Ahogado River to El Salto. Our first stop was at a point just next to Guadalajara's Beltway, the Periférico and the Airport Road to Chapala. At the corner of two streets quaintly named Biblia and Rosario we pulled up next to what looked like a drainage ditch and stepped out of the car to be hit by a stench that nearly gagged us. A young lady was pushing a baby carriage across a bridge over this canal which was, in fact the natural bed of the Ahogado River. Ahogado, perhaps appropriately, means “drowned man.”

 “The raw sewage from all the houses around here flows directly into this arroyo,”  said José Luis, “and here is where the problem begins.”

Our next stop along the course of this river of sewage was a spot only 100 meters north of  Guadalajara International Airport. Did you ever wonder why the airport of the City of Roses smells like basura (garbage) and not at all like flowers? Well, the “river” flowing right next to it is pure sewage with great gobs of garbage floating on its surface. Amongst the plastic bags, worn-out tires and “icebergs” of Styrofoam, we spotted the bloated corpse of a dead dog. To make matters worse, it appears that airport waste water is flowing directly into this pestilential stream, making it even worse. How sad that the first impression visitors have of this city is the smell of garbage and excrement!

River of Sewage 100 meters from Guadalajara Airport

The Ahogado River, full of sewage and garbage, seen 100 meters from Guadalajara's Airport.

Just across the highway from the airport, the river flows right into a grim-looking swamp called La Presa del Ahogado, which stinks to the high heavens. Because it's officially a wetland, it's Federal property. All around it are located factories: textile manufacturers, toolmakers, etcetera. All of them seem to be spilling their residues into the smelly bog.

“We are studying the quality of the Ahogado by taking samples of the river sediment in different areas and trying to raise earthworms in the dirt,” commented Zavala. "Mud from some sites we sampled in this swamp must be especially bad because all our worms died.”

This apparently toxic sewage now flows out of the wetland and at last reaches the El Ahogado Treatment Plant which went into operation in March of 2012. We weren't able to visit the plant due to the bureaucracy which would be involved, but newspaper reports say the plant now produces 1850 liters of clean water per second and eventually will be able to handle 2250. At the plant's grand opening, José Luis Luegue, director of Conagua, the National Water Commission, said, referring to the boy who died of drinking the river water, that “we can now say the Río Santiago is free of arsenic.”

The Ahogado waters flow into the Río Santiago. Less than ten kilometers east of the treatment plant we were able to appreciate the results of the cleanup. Here the Santiago is maybe 100 meters wide. Grass and shade trees grace the river bank and I could detect no evil smell. Coots were swimming in the river and we even found small fish in it! The water looks crystal clear, but I definitely would not try to drink it.

From the riverside we walked to the notorious El Salto Cascades, thinking about the Youtube video showing Greenpeace volunteers covered head to toe in hazmat suits, bobbing on a raft barely visible beneath a meter of toxic foam.

All gone now. The waterfall is actually quite pretty, though there wasn't much flow because it was the dry season. As for the smell, it's tolerable. If the treatment plant ever reaches Stage Two, the Juanacatlán Falls might actually become “Mexico's Niagara” and the tourist attraction it once was. I would definitely like to come back and visit this place during the rainy season.

Downstream, of course, the pollution continues, but the Ahogado Plant now gives Tapatios a glimmer of hope that the Santiago may someday recover from what human beings have done to it.

If you, too, would like to see El Salto for yourself, it's easy to get to get to, both from Guadalajara and the lakeside. Just follow the directions below...but don't bother bringing a swim suit!

How to get there
Five kilometers south of the airport get on to the highway to El Salto and head east. Drive 9.6 kilometers to the street appropriately called “A Juanacatlán.” Turn right here. The road heads south and then curves northeast. After 1.1 kilometers you come to Calle Constitución. Turn right and cross the bridge over the waterfall. The very first street after the bridge is called Calle Arenal. Turn left here and park. From here it's just a 160-meter walk to the mirador for gazing at the waterfall. You can also drive a short distance south on Calle Arenal and park alongside the picturesque river bank. You'll find the driving route from the Airport Road to the waterfall on Wikiloc.com under “Salto Juanacatlan."

Jesús Moreno photographs wastewater flowing out of Las Pintas Lake

Nature photographer Jesús "Chuy" Moreno shoots the drain where sewage flows out of Las Pintas Lake, on its way to the Santiago River.


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