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4th ECRR Conference on River

Restoration
Italy, Venice S. Servolo Island
16-21 June 2008

MEXICO CITY: FROM WATER AVENUES TO ASPHALT


RIVERS
Current condition and future perspectives of the Mexico City
Rivers

Perló M.*, González A., Zamora I., Hernández L.

University Program on City Studies, National Autonomous University of Mexico


*Corresponding author, e-mail: perlo@servidor.unam.mx

ABSTRACT
Mexico City developed in a hydrological basin where was formed a natural lake
system. This situation made the city vulnerable to floods caused by its overflowing
lakes. Thus, Mexico City and its relation to its lacustrine environment have been
conflictive ever since the Spaniards conquered the city in the Sixteen Century, and
through our present day and age. Successive generations over four centuries built
hydraulic works that aimed to empty the basin’s lakes through different tunnels. The
war against water has characterized this city over the centuries. Once the Valley of
Mexico dried up in the Twentieth Century, the city’s growing population polluted its
rivers and the best solution consisted of confining the waters to pipes and
transforming their beds into vehicular roadways.
In this present day and age, all recovery or rehabilitation of a urban Mexico City
river demands taking its hydraulic history into account; that history structured the
huge drainage system that collects and expels lake water from the basin, as well as
the rivers confined in pipes, and the city’s rain and wastewater. The rescue of an
urban Mexico City river is faced with the challenge of overcoming the prevailing
cultural and technological inertia.
We entered the Twenty-first Century with the idea of shifting paradigms and
recovering an urban river on the southwestern side of Mexico City. This project
intends to amend the historically conflictive relationship that has existed between
water and the capital city's residents, and thus start to support sustainability in one of
the world’s largest cities.

Keywords: Mexico City, hydraulic history; draining lakes, rivers confinement; river
rehabilitation.
Mexico City: from water avenues to asphalt rivers
 

1. INTRODUCTION. MEXICO CITY AND WATER: A GREAT


PARADOX
The Mexico basin was a natural endorreic basin, that is to say, a closed
basin in a valley with a vast system of lakes formations, but it has become an
artificially open and semi-deserted basin. The Mexico Basin has been
exploited by successive generations that succeeded in drastically modifying
its hydrological operation over the last four centuries.
The war against flooding has been a constant since the city of
Tenochtitlan was founded and in the current Mexico City metropolitan area.
This constant battle waged against the excess of water over the centuries,
derived in a great paradox in the Twentieth Century: while Mexico City
succeeded in overcoming its flood and full outlet nightmares, the valley
lacked enough water to meet the growing demand of its explosive
urbanization. We must bear in mind that Mexico City went from having two
to 20 million inhabitants in just six decades. In principle, the efficient
expulsion of land and rain waters from the Valley of Mexico allowed for
urban and industrial development of the metropolis through the extraction of
underground water sources. However, once these underground sources were
found to be insufficient in the 1940s, city authorities built an aqueduct to
import water from a neighboring basin. Later on, in the 1980s, the city built
a second aqueduct to transfer water from another neighboring basin. These
two aqueducts (the Lerma and Cutzamala systems) supply approximately
30% of the potable water that Mexico City requires.
Rivers did not represent a possible water supply solution for the city
throughout the Twentieth Century. On the contrary, their status as seasonal
rivers and polluted by the cities that were incorporated into the capital city’s
metropolitan area, caused these to be perceived as a health hazard for the
population. The solution to the problem consisted of laying pipes to confine
and discharge the contaminated waters and rebuild the structures left by their
old channels to transform them into avenues for vehicular transportation
purposes. Hence, the different drainage works caused rivers to be classified
as wastewater. The city condemned the rivers to a murky death: their mild
water currents were reduced by concrete and asphalt.
The present is charged with history. Any project to rescue the urban
rivers within this context demands a full understanding of the long-term
processes that have had an impact on hydraulic history in the Mexico City
Valley, the cultural history of the type of urbanization and its relation with
the environment. The rescue of an urban river in Mexico City represents a
serious challenge that is limited not only to technology and methodologies,
but is affected primarily by historical, social and cultural factors.
Perló M., González A., Zamora I., Hernández L.

2. FROM AN AMERICAN VENICE TO A THIRSTY


MEGALOPOLIS
The Mexico Basin consolidated itself as an endorreic formation on the
geological horizon of the Tertiary; that is to say, close to 9,600 square
kilometers were hydrologically enclosed to house lake lowlands 2,250
meters above sea level. Five lakes were then formed and trapped among
mountains and hills that became one great lake during the rainy season. The
lakes known as the Zumpango and Xaltocan lakes flowed on the north side
of the city; while the Xochimilco and Chalco flowed on the southern side of
the Valley, each at a different altitude, but each intercommunicated as they
flowed into the Texcoco River at the center of the valley. The lakes were fed
by the runoffs that flowed from the high areas through torrential rivers and
the summertime rain and precipitation that ranges between 1500 mm and
600 mm. The rivers were between one and five meters deep and covered
between 1500 and 2000 square kilometers, close to one-fifth of the total
surface of the basin.
The Mexica civilization faced cyclical floods that decimated its
population. Nonetheless, the solutions propounded to face these catastrophes
never questioned the cultural strategy of leveraging the benefits the lakes
provided. The construction in 1449 of a huge 16-kilometer stone dyke to
protect the Greater Tenochtitlan from the curse of the floods is attributed to
Netzahualcoyotl, king of Texcoco. This dyke was built to keep the
overflowing Zumpango and Texcoco lakes.
Once the Europeans conquered the Mexico City Valley, they modified
the mentalities and the practices regarding the ecosystem. The complex
lacustrine life became a problem for the Spaniard’s conception of a city. The
viceregal capital was founded over the ruins of Tenochtitlan and faced the
water’s destructive from its very creation. The chronicles report floods of
great magnitudes in 1555, 1580, 1604 and 1607. The New Spain policy with
respect to the valley’s water did not contemplate its retention, rather the
radical modification of the Valley’s ecosystem. The city’s first ambitious
project to artificially discharge the waters of the Cuauhtitlán River through a
tunnel drilled in the northern part of the basin was completed in 1608. This
first artificial solution is known as the Tajo de Nochistongo (Nochistongo
Tagus). This hydraulic work in the Seventeenth Century set off a strategy
that is maintained through this day and age to expel the lakes and rivers from
the Mexico Basin. The Nochistongo Tagus protected the viceregal capital
from floods that originated from the rivers and lakes from the north of the
valley; however, it could not protect it from the floods originating from the
east, south and center of the valley.
In the Nineteenth Century, General Porfirio Díaz undertook a second
drilling process to drain the basin in the year 1900 in the Tequixquiac
Mountain; however, flooding continued during the first half of the Twentieth
Mexico City: from water avenues to asphalt rivers
 

Century, flooding the downtown area of the modern capital city for weeks at
a time. The revolutionary government built a third artificial drainage system
close to 200 meters from the previous system in 1947 and the fourth
drainage system, the largest one to date, was finally initiated in 1975, which
consists of a 200-meter deep tunnel that flowed into the El Salto River; and
thanks to these four artificial drainage systems, the Mexico City Valley is no
longer a closed basin, as it started to discharge its overland waters from 1607
to date, into the neighboring Tula River basins, which carries the water to the
Gulf of Mexico.
After draining the five lakes of the Mexico Basin for three-and-one-half
centuries, the landscape has been drastically modified and the superficial
waters started to become scarce and be in short supply. The subterranean
aquifers of the valley itself solved urban development early on in the
Twentieth Century, but this alternative reached its limit when it started to
sink the subsoil in downtown Mexico City. The excessive extraction of
underground water caused the clay in the subsoil to compact and start to
cave in. It was then that engineers in the revolutionary state designed and
built the first infrastructure to bring water from a neighboring basin: the
Lerma System that initially collected the springs from the Almoloya River
and later on extracted water from the subsoil of the Toluca and Ixtlahuaca
valleys. However, the city’s explosive demographic growth in three decades
caused the imported water from the neighboring basin to be insufficient.
Thus, a second system was inaugurated in 1982 with the same objective:
“import” superficial waters collected in dams at the Cutzamala River Basin,
over 100 kilometers away from the capital city, overcoming a 1,000 meter
difference in elevation.

3. URBAN MODERNITY AND RIVERS CONFINEMENT


The use of rivers was never an option for the modern Mexico City, as
people in the 1930s perceived the streams and rivers as discontinuous and
hard to control: “The streams that feed the Federal District flow in from the
surrounding mountains; most are classified as torrential waters and of a
passing nature. They include the Consulado, Los Remedios, Tlalnepantla,
Churubusco, and the Piedad rivers, although none of these are important
streams and some overflow and flood portions of the surrounding land at
certain times of the year." (DDF, 1930:18).
As the rivers flooded the new suburbs, the governement started to apply a
policy that consisted of containing them through a system of dams in the
west of the city. The solution was to collect the waters in small dams and
create underground tunnels to bring them north through drainage systems,
remove them from the city and finally expel them from the basin. The
Mixcoac dam was built between 1937 and 1941, and the Mixcoac-Becerra
Perló M., González A., Zamora I., Hernández L.

tunnel was built between 1937 and 1940. The Tacubaya dam was built
between 1936 and 1938, and the Tacubaya-Tecamachalco tunnel was built
between 1935 and 1937. The San Joaquín dam was built between 1935 and
1936, and the San Joaquín-Tornillo dam was constructed was built between
1936 and 1938. In summary, during the thirties, the transformation of the
social representation of the rivers was consolidated, which changed from
viewing them as a local source of water and peripheral irrigation, to viewing
them as responsible for floods and sources of infection.
Despite all the protective hydraulic works, Mexico City continued to
suffer from severe flooding during the 1940s. A second wave of confining
the rivers was then undertaken, beginning with the Viga Canal that was
enclosed in 1941. A portion (10.4 kilometers) of the Consulado River was
then piped between 1944 and 1960, as the river was not very bountiful and
was seasonal and its borders has been settled by human settlements that
constantly felt threatened by its overflowing and by the fact that it
transported large amounts of wastewaters from the capital city’s thriving
industry. People held negative perceptions of the Consulado River, and most
others by stating that, “These channels, which frequently overflow in times of
heavy rainfalls cause dangerous floods in large areas; they are also
unhealthy centers because they do not have a continuous current flows, they
are dry most of the year and encouraged the accumulation of trash and all
kinds of filth. The greatest damage was caused by the Consulado Rivers,
which flowed through populated colonies [neighborhoods] such as
Cuauhtémoc, San Rafael, Santa Julia, and Santa Maria, Nonoalco,
Peralvillo, Vallejo and numerous other neighborhoods to the East.” (DDF,
1942:113). Communication between the Santa Maria, San Jacinto and
Tacuba colonies improved once the river was confined to pipes (DDF,
1975), and a new layer of asphalt was laid over its bed by creating a
paradigmatic solution to the new river urbanization strategy.

Pictures 1 and 2 – Magdalena river confined in 1960

A portion –11.3 kilometers of the Piedad River was piped between 1945
and 1960, in parallel with the construction of the network of collectors and
Mexico City: from water avenues to asphalt rivers
 

improved drainage systems, representing a long process that included a


variety of different public works. A portion (21 kilometers) of the
Churubusco River was confined between 1950 and 1975.
Urban development used the riverbeds as borders between different
neighborhoods, and the construction of highways, thus resolving automobile
trip needs. The modern city model involved the design of large avenues to
connect the different regions of the capital city; thus another 1.9 km of the
Piedad River were piped between 1947 and 1957, to connect the Becerra
River and the Miguel Alemán Viaduct and create an expressway to drive
from the east to the western side of the city. During this same period, the city
piped 542 meters of the San Joaquín River and thus the rivers were gradually
transformed into the mute asphalt avenues of the city.
In the fifties, the city’s government and residents continued to fight their
rivers and in 1951, the waters of the Churubusco River were diverted to the
National Canal to maintain the decreasing water levels of the Xochimilco,
Tláhuac and Mixquic Lakes. In 1953, the Los Remedios River overflowed
and flooded several surrounding colonies. The first floods in the fifties were
clear proof that the drainage repairs were insufficient, as certain areas of the
city started to cave in. The solution had to be generalized and in 1953, the
Head Office of the Federal District’s Hydraulic Works Department
introduced the “General Plan to resolve the sinking and flooding problems
in Mexico City and supply running water in Mexico City.” The plan
permanently modified the riverbeds that ran through the capital city and
finished piping of the Consulado River and the close to 80 kilometers that
remained of the Churubusco, Magdalena, San Angel, Mixcoac, La Piedad,
Becerra, Tacubaya, Dolores, Barrilaco, and the Tecamachalco and San
Joaquín Rivers. The works were completed with the construction of the so-
called Western Interceptor that was built to collect the waste and rain waters.
The interceptor was 17 kilometers long and divided the Magdalena River,
running through the Chapultepec hills until it poured into the Remedios
River (Casasola, 1967:2908).
Work was started on the Grand Channel in 1960, which would help carry
waters from the rivers that were now combined and undivided from
wastewaters generated by the different neighborhoods. The Grand Channel
was built to flow down the Hondo River and into the Vaso de Cristo River.
Between 1963 and 1964, the Western Interceptor was extended to the
Cuauhtitlán River, the Zumpango Lake and the Nochistongo Tagus. The
Western Interceptor opened an outlet for the rivers to flow to the western and
southwestern sides of the city, which represented a health and aesthetic
problem for the subdivisions and colonies, which also allowed for the waters
to flow and drain towards the north.
Perló M., González A., Zamora I., Hernández L.

Figure 1 – Urban rivers and urban development in Mexico city

Between 1960 and 1970, a good part of the north and northeast of Mexico
City was industrialized, leading to explosive population growth, which grew
to nine million citizens in 1960, and 14 million residents by the eighties,
which caused a rapid growth in metropolitanization. The needs and services
had to correspond to the modern dimensions of the large city and its
population in such a manner that the authorities decided to create a Deep
Drainage system. The sewer system was modernized during its construction,
and the river problem was finally resolved and controlled to improve the
city’s “roadway, sanitary and aesthetic aspects". This system confined: 620
meters of the San Juan de Dios River, 1.7 kilometers of the Miramontes
Canal, 200 meters of the San Buena Ventura River, 1 kilometer of the
Tacubaya River, 1.3 kilometers of the Hondo River, 1.6 kilometers of the
San Angel River and 300 meters of the Barranca del Muerto River and also
dredged part of the endless Churubusco River, piping it up to Zaragoza
(DDF, 1975:231).
Mexico City: from water avenues to asphalt rivers
 

4. REHABILITATING THE MAGDALENA RIVER AGAINST THE


HISTORIC INERTIA THAT PREVAILS IN THE MEXICO BASIN
The sanitary hydraulic paradigm was conclusive in its results and one can
now affirm that all of the rivers in the Mexico Basin are fragmented by
dams, artificial derivations and other types of hydraulic works. It is
important to note that some rivers of the east of the basin still run their
natural course, they are approved for local agricultural activities and flow
into the remainder of the Texcoco Lake.
People have raised their voices within this context with a clamor to
change the handling and management of the river basins by building an
alternate model that demonstrates the benefits of incorporating a river into
the urban environment. These types of proposals have been concentrated to
rescue the Magdalena River found in the southwestern side of the city.
There are several reasons that play a role in choosing the Magdalena
River to create a new paradigm: the excellent quality of the water found in
its upper portion, the eminently young forest and conservation of the natural
area, its entrance with an open riverbed to the urban area, its contributions to
the water supply (210 L/s) and its historical heritage and cultural relationship
with the city. Thanks to this great natural and socio-cultural potential, the
Magdalena River persists in the social imagination as a possibility for
changing the course of the hydrological history of our city. Articulation of
the project among civil, academic and government parties finally allowed the
different forces to organize to restore the river by drawing up a Master Plan.
The Master Plan for the Comprehensive Management and Sustainable
Use of the Magdalena River Basin has been in process since November 2007
and is expected to be announced to the population in the summer of this
year. The Plan has a multipurpose focus that will promote the eco-systemic
services this river provides for the city and will create a cultural, social and
urban development with the river as the centerpiece of one of the largest
linear parks in Latin America.

Pictures 3 and 4 – Magdalena river in Mexico city


Perló M., González A., Zamora I., Hernández L.

Finally, with the drying up of the lakes and the piping of the central rivers
of the city, the Magdalena River does not have a natural outflow to a larger
body of water. First of all, the water goes partially through the Western
Interceptor and the water that continues its natural course flows into the
Churubusco River, which is fully piped and carries only wastewater.
The outlook reflects several issues, one of which we would like to discuss
at this time: does the Magdalena River have the characteristics that are
needed for restoration purposes or can it only be rehabilitated? The plan’s
progress allows us to rely on the elements that are needed to respond to the
previous questions. There are probably no city rivers that have the
characteristics that are needed to ensure their restoration, when we consider
the concept of restoration as the return of a system to its natural and original
conditions (Society for Ecological Restoration: 1994). The advanced
polluted conditions and the hydraulic intervention of the rivers in the Mexico
Basin do not allow for its restoration, at least not in a primary phase. On the
other hand, the Plan can pursue the objective of recovering certain basic
biophysical elements of the ecosystem, especially in the urban area as well
as the forest gallery and from the soil on the river banks, which are suit the
classic notion of rehabilitating an urban river (Findlay & Taylor: 2006).
If this plan were to succeed in a short-term harmonization of the results
derived from an integral vision for the long-term, we will be able to reflect
on the relationship we have kept with our rivers. Instead of considering them
as a threat and a weakness in our surroundings, we will be able to convert
transform them into spaces that offer multiple environmental, social, cultural
and economic opportunities.

5. CONCLUSIONS
Mexico City can be considered as a metropolis that overpoweringly
transformed its urban rivers into vehicular roadways, driven by a vision for
progress and modernization. In 40 years, the city erased close to 83
kilometers of rivers, which is three times the size of the largest avenue in the
world (Insurgentes located in Mexico City).
Mexico City’s present day challenge consists of redirecting the
relationship between our society and the environment. Hydric sustainability
implies changes in the manner in which we formulate the problem itself: it is
no longer a matter of trying to dominate nature to our own benefit; that is to
say, this no longer has to do with bringing water from far regions or mixing
rain water with wastewater and expelling it to even more remote sites;
neither is it a matter of confining the rivers that still flow under the open
skies, to pipe flows. From hereon after, the problem’s formulation is not
based exclusively on the construction of dikes, dams, aqueducts and
channels; that is to say, this is not a matter that is exclusive to civil and
hydraulic engineering. The Twenty-First Century is now faced with the
Mexico City: from water avenues to asphalt rivers
 

challenge of taking action on our own selves; on the need for society to
regulate itself to its own benefit, as the protection and efficient management
of hydric resources –and environmental resources, in general– will guarantee
its future viability.
This is a huge challenge and we are now driven by a new vision to beat it.
We expect to change the manner in which we have related to our rivers
through the city’s sustainability and the future of the 51 rivers that still
remain in the basin and refuse to disappear.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Thanks to Professor Miguel Segundo.

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