Sweet Salvation

Sweet Salvation was originally published at www.norcalblogs.com. 

December 2006, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

There are three facts that exist on the southern tip of Baja Mexico: 1) this is a desert, 2) until very recently, even though the entire area is surrounded by ocean, there was very little drinking water here, and 3) it is desperately cut off from the rest of the world.

We arrive at Los Cabos International airport early in the afternoon. The flight from San Francisco, just over three hours, transported us from a rainy and cold winter morning to a sunny, 85-degree afternoon. The flight is nearly empty; Matt and I have an entire row of seats to ourselves and so when we approach the small airport a few miles inland of the Sea of Cortez, I scoot to the window seat and raise the plastic window shade of the airplane window and watch as we descend from 30,000 feet into the barren Baja desert.

The narrow Baja California peninsula, which has an average width of less than 60 miles, runs over a thousand miles from the border with the United States at San Diego, to the arched rocks at Lands End in Cabo San Lucas. Although the flight from Los Angeles is only 2 hours, it takes two full days of driving on the two-lane highway the Mexican government completed in 1973 to reach Cabo San Lucas.

Before the road was completed, very few inhabitants called southern Baja home; soon after, the region was granted statehood and ten years later, Americans began to converge on the isolated area. Today, Cabo San Lucas is home to 40,000 people, most of whom are transplants (or seasonal American and Canadian residents) from mainland Mexico who followed the tourist trail to the peninsula in search of jobs and a better life.

The first stop we make in Cabo San Lucas, after we check into our condo and drop off our luggage, is the Costco two miles from our condo. In Costco, we scan the much-familiar warehouse aisles and are transported almost immediately back to America when we see the layout of the store is nearly identical to that of the Costco in our own town.

We push our oversized cart between stacks of high-definition televisions, are tempted by the smell of muffins in the bakery, and then, are reminded by the young woman giving samples of tequila, that we are still in Mexico. After picking up thinly sliced steak for fajitas, soft Mexican cheese (a local specialty), and salad fixings, we add a 36-pack of bottled water to our shopping cart. Even though purified water is delivered once a week to the condo, we are skeptical of the term “purified” and wonder just how clean the water can be. I wonder, ‘is there anyone in Mexico who actually regulates distributors of “purified” water?’

It takes a few days to get over my fear of the large purified bottle of water in the condo but after using it to wash vegetables and brush my teeth (and not getting sick), I give in and pour myself a glass of water from the 5-gallon jug. It is then that I start to question where the water in Cabo comes from.

There are no rivers near Cabo San Lucas and because this is a desert, ground water is rare; the nearest source of groundwater, spring fed from the small mountain range that rises in the middle of the peninsula, is 30 miles away in San Jose Del Cabo. But even the relatively clean water that comes from the mountain is not enough to feed the 40,000 people in Cabo and the ever growing tourist population along the coast. Every few days, residents of Cabo’s impoverished barrio run out of water.

In Cabo, the answer to the water shortage problem has come from the ocean that surrounds the peninsula. Small desalination plants have existed in Cabo for several years now; the technology has gotten much less expensive in the past decade so large resorts and private residents can afford to buy the equipment needed to remove the salt from the sea water. A few months ago, a large desalination plant, designed to meet the water needs of all the residents in Cabo, began operation just outside the city.

The desalination plant has come as sweet salvation for the residents of Cabo San Lucas.

But I wonder how long the salvation can last. And at what price.

There is a reason that thirty years ago, Cabo San Lucas was all but desert with few inhabitants; it is naturally uninhabitable and unable to environmentally support a large number of people. But like so many other places on Earth, we built roads to transport people and goods, water and fuel where the Earth does not want us. Usually, those places are the most vulnerable; their ecosystems are fragile for some reason and the gentle balance of nature can easily shift to a dangerous tide.

Build a high-rise hotel close to a beach which is the only place a specific type of turtle hatch their eggs, and you lose the entire species. And with it, any other plant or animal that relied on that turtle.

Build a desalination plant and destroy the kelp fields, the coral reefs, and kill the fish in the area because of the high concentration of by product dumped back into the ocean.

I am reminded of Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” and wonder, if others know that there is water, if they build more desalination plants, will more people come? Will more high-rises be built? Will the precious ecosystem of Baja be able to tolerate the stampede?

I wonder, when will it stop? When we lose one turtle? Or a thousand? When will we say, enough?