Opinion column In English
Can Lake Tahoe save Lake Chapala?
In the late 1960s, after a century of complaints, the governors of the North American states of California and Nevada approved a bi-state compact to protect Lake Tahoe, the largest freshwater lake west of the Rocky Mountains. They created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to oversee development around Lake Tahoe, which is slightly smaller than Lake Chapala. TRPA was approved by the United States Congress and tasked with creating a plan with the local cities and agencies. Today that plan is enforced by TRPA and federal, state, and local governments that strictly regulate development.
Lake Chapala is now facing the same kind of crisis Lake Tahoe faced 60 years ago. But Lake Chapala is far more vital to the people of its surrounding states and towns than the mostly recreational Lake Tahoe is. Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest natural lake, is the linchpin of a gigantic eco and economic system, the River Lerma-Lake Chapala drainage basin, which includes more than 8 million people, 3,500 diverse industries, 750,000 hectares of irrigated farmland and 14 cities with populations in excess of 100,000. And it is under deadly stress.
Lake Chapala is beset by pesticide runoff, dehydration, algal blooms, high phosphorus levels, heavy metals, aquatic weeds, sewage, and loss of shoreline. Driving much of this is illegal appropriation of the Federal shoreline and water – illegal dumping in Jocotepec for merry-go-rounds, illegal building on the beach in Ajijic by restaurants, illegal filling for farms in Riberas, garbage dumped in the lake from west Ajijic to Chapala, illegal fishermen, untreated sewage – they are all killing the lake.
Why? Because there is little to no enforcement.
Chapala, Jocotepec, Jalisco and the Federal governments all have agencies whose responsibility is to protect the Lake we all love, the largest lake in Mexico. And they all fail.
The problem is not weak laws, or lack of scientific expertise, or ignorance of the problems or corrupt or underperforming officials. It is lack of political will.
As far back as 1997, there was call for international pressure on Mexico, similar to the Canadian lobbying that led to the conservation of Monarch butterfly habitat, to detail the Lake’s problems and develop a multi-state, regional-national effort to save the Lake. But this takes will and money. The agencies whose job it is to protect the Lake are underfunded, overworked and undercoordinated. And that is the failure, not of the good people who manage and staff the agencies, but of political will to give them the authority and resource they need to succeed.
The Lakeshore is Federal, but the local office of the Federal agency is understaffed – so much so that when Chapala Mayor Moisés Anaya Aguilar took its director on a tour of illegal appropriation of Federal shoreline he was told that there are too many problems and too few resources to do much. Local agencies have no authority to act and Federal agencies have no capability to act. And AMLO has other priorities.
Some progress is being made, mostly in uncoordinated fits and starts. There is a move to devolve enforcement authority to the local governments. But that will be a wack-a-mole game that ignores the major problems and will meet fierce pushback. Without a regional plan, progress monitoring, funds from the Federal government for enforcement officers and equipment, sewage treatment plants, shoreline rehabilitation, and prosecution, it will fail.
Which is where political will comes in. The lake can be protected if the people demand it. In this week’s Laguna, reporter Sofia Medeles chronicles how the online complaints of a citizen finally prodded coordinated governmental action to stop illegal beach appropriation by the Maria Isabel restaurant in Ajijic. It will take many –thousands – of citizen complaints to get the sewage treatment plants built, stop the pesticide runoff, prosecute the lakeshore invasions, and regulate fishing and tourism to save the Lake. And it may take international pressure to get the Federal government to generously fund state and local agencies and give them the authority to get the job done.
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency could be a model for Lake Chapala’s future. A scientifically-based plan with clear progress benchmarks backed up by determination in state, federal and local governments overcame lethargy and opposition in Lake Tahoe. It might work here. But it took the people of California and Nevada 100 years of complaining, pressuring and voting to create the political will. Lake Chapala does not have 100 years