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Dried up bed of Lake Cuitzeo, Michoacán. Dried up bed of Lake Cuitzeo, Michoacán.

What was Mexico’s second largest lake now a cemetery of abandoned fishboats

The deterioration of Lake Cuitzeo in Michoacán began in 1941, according to a local conservationist

Drought has dried up what was Mexico’s second-biggest lake, destroying a once thriving fishing economy in Michoacán.

At Lake Cuitzeo, 30 kilometers from the state capital Morelia, fishboats now lie on the lake’s dry bed, which has become a shortcut for motorists.

The dearth of water also creates frequent and prolonged dust clouds which reach municipalities 20 kilometers away in Guanajuato. That affects the health of residents in nearby communities, causing allergies, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal complications from the bacteria they transport, according to the State Health Ministry.

The more than 300-square-kilometer lakebed is located in the Michoacán municipalities of Huandacareo, Chucándiro, Copándaro, Álvaro Obregón and Zinapécuaro.

Julieta Gallardo Mora, honorary president of a foundation committed to conserving the lake, says its deterioration started in 1941, and authorities have made no effort to stop it.

Vehicles use the lake as a shortcut.
Vehicles use the lake as a shortcut.

“The first blow was when the Cointzio dam was built in 1941, which meant that two-thirds of Lake Cuitzeo was removed,” she said.

Gallardo added that the first noticeable impact was the disappearance of fish, starting with the chirostoma, which is native to the lakes of Jalisco and Michoacán, followed by white fish and other water life.

“Cuitzeo should have 800 million cubic meters of water, but today it doesn’t even have 200. That’s the scale of the problem,” she said.

According to government estimates, the fishing yields just 5% of what it used to in the 1990s and of the 19 species of fish documented in 1975, only six remain.

State Environment Secretary Ricard Luna said deforestation and the building of two highways 30 years ago, which split the lake into three parts, have contributed to its demise.

A researcher at the Michoacan University of Saint Nicholas of Hidalgo (UMSNH), Alberto Gómez-Tagle, identified water demand in the state capital Morelia and waste from pig farms and industrial waste from factories, which are dumped into the lake, as other factors. 

lake cuitzeo

Huandacareo Mayor Celedonia Guzmán Herrera said that although mayors from the region have presented projects to rescue the lake, federal authorities have not intervened, and deterioration of the fishing industry had caused a surge in migration to the United States.

She insists that municipal authorities do not have the resources to restore the lake, and called on the Ministry of Environment and the National Water Commission to initiate a plan that municipal authorities have presented to them.

Michoacán Governor Silvano Aureoles said the lake’s rescue should be tackled jointly by federal and state authorities and the 15 municipalities which surround the lake.

He warned that to clean up the wastewater that reaches it would require at least 3 billion pesos (US $150 million), which he said can only be provided by the federal government.

Academics from UMSNH, fishermen and activists have created a petition on change.org calling for the government to rescue the lake and restore its economic activity. The petition had gathered almost 28,000 signatures by Thursday.

Source: El Universal (sp), Milenio (sp)

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