Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Vital Question of Water


One Saturday each month, under the dancing shade of a grove of mesquite trees, Doña Felisa presides over a meeting of La Biznaga's water committee. Felisa is thin, neatly dressed and coiffed, and all-business. She takes meticulous notes of the proceedings which invariably revolve around money or how often and when to turn on the well pump so the neighbors--that includes us--can fill their underground cisterns or the tinacos, the black plastic rooftop water tanks that are ubiquitous throughout Mexico.

The dozen or so attendees, almost all women, sit on the ground and are not afraid to express objections or just grumble. When all the business is transacted--or Felisa's had her fill of bitching and gossiping--she ceremoniously announces "this meeting of the water committee is adjourned" as she slams her notebook shut.

The only regular male attendee is likely to be Lucio, who looks to be in his early forties and is the pocero or "well man," the linchpin of La Biznaga's dicey water distribution network. He's in charge of switching on the water pump and opening and closing the valves so everyone gets their twice-weekly allotment of water.

It'd be a reliable enough setup were it not for Lucio's battle with booze. Some weeks he'll neglect to turn the water on or off, causing some tinacos to either overflow or run dry.

It all depends on how Lucio is feeling that week and there's no customer service phone. If you need water, your only recourse is to go on foot and try to track down either Felisa, Lucio or Lucio's sober and far more dependable brother, Felimón.

¿Qué pasó con el agua?

Undaunted by his erratic service, Lucio occasionally puts the touch on the neighbors for "tips" of usually 10 or 15 pesos or approximately one dollar. Some of the gringos oblige, figuring that as unreliable as he may be it's preferable to keep Lucio on your side rather than piss him off. After all, he's got the keys to the pump.

The finances of the water system are not altogether clear. The going rate for a toma, or hookup to the system, is approximately US$1,000, a sizable amount in these parts. But then the monthly fee, for whatever water Lucio manages to provide, is only about US$3.50. About six months ago the water committee raised the monthly fee by three pesos or so, about 20 cents, but then rescinded the increase after some residents complained.

The money collected goes towards pump repairs and the electricity to run it. It's not clear who pays for repairs of the motley distribution system, a mess of galvanized and plastic pipes, and plastic hoses of various widths that run above and below ground in no particular pattern. We've already spent approximately US$100 patching various leaks near our ranch.

Much to her credit, Felisa is a water conservation hawk. She'll trudge along the waterlines regularly and suspend service if she spots any leaks. She's even visited our construction site to be sure water was not being wasted. I don't know how much Felisa gets paid, if anything, but hers is quite a responsible job and she does it well.

So far the water pressure that reaches our place, coming off a 2" line, is impressive. We can refill a 5,000-liter tinaco in a few hours. That should be enough to keep our household supplied, even allowing for disruptions caused by Lucio's drinking bouts.

So far. We have serious doubts the existing system can supply the growing number of homes that will be built around us as Don Lucas continues to split up his sizable ranch and sell off one-hectare parcels. Home construction may stall for the next few years because of the global economic crisis, but it's inevitable that La Biznaga's hard-working well will begin to gasp sometime during the next ten years, as more people move into the neighborhood.

We have thought of applying for a permit to sink our own well but that takes years of bureaucratic finagling and as much as $40,000 in permit and drilling expenses. It's not clear either that the state will grant a permit for a private well as long as we have an alternative source of water, no matter how feeble or unreliable.

That is why we opted to build in a rainwater collection cistern into the new house, a cistern so large and massive that right now it looks more like a swimming pool. That has set us back at least two weeks in the construction of the rest of the house, in addition to approximately US$10,000 in costs.

If the future water supply were not so uncertain--if we had access to the municipal water system--I'd have a few doubts about the wisdom of our investment in rainwater collection. If you add the cost of photovoltaic electric system, solar hot water plus other energy-saving gizmos and gadgets, the price tag of living off-grid likely will go over $50,000.

That doesn't include the cost of a wind turbine for generating electricity, a plaything I can't get out of my head.

The sizing of the cistern, approximately 130,000 liters, was based on the roof area and the amount of rainfall in San Miguel. According to friends Rick and Andrea, who have an even bigger rainwater collection system, 125,000 to 130,000 liters should be enough for a year without any heroic water-saving measures.

Design and engineering of the cistern, with its massive walls--as much as a four feet wide at the bottom tapering down to about half as much at the top--was the work of the architect. The house sits on a slope and we tried to take advantage of that to save some digging, and placed the cistern under a terrace. One of Rick and Andrea's cisterns is about 12 feet deep; ours will be only six feet deep but with a large footprint.

Our design turned out to be a smart move. The limited excavation we had to do became quite difficult when the jackhammer attachment of a backhoe ran into a nasty mix of dirt and rocks. The relatively new backhoe broke down several times during the rat-tat-tat digging.

The ungodly thick walls, according to the architect, were necessary because the unstable ground is mostly black dirt. Though they may look somewhat similar, San Miguel black dirt bears no resemblance to the rich soil you find in Iowa or other parts of the Midwest. Not only is the dirt here of very poor quality--its nitrogen content is particularly lousy--but its consistency ranges from concrete to mashed potatoes, depending on whether we're in the dry or the rainy season. Water also weighs a lot and the outer wall of the cistern will have to withstand considerable outward pressure.



If there's any good news in all this is that the prime building material for the cistern and the foundations is rocks, of which we have several hundred thousand on the property, of all sizes, shapes and colors. No need to ring the building materials supplier. Just tell one of the guys to go out with a pick and shovel and round up yet another wheelbarrow-full of rocks. We hope the magic of rain and soil shifting will help heal the pockmarked property.

The cistern is divided into three compartments, created by two walls needed to support the terrace above. Rainwater will mix with well water and run toward a low spot at the end of the cistern adjacent to a mechanical room under the kitchen. The system will use a submersible pump hooked to a pressure tank and water filtration system.

A couple of gringos who have built nearby have tested the well water though we haven't seen the results. Supposedly it is safe. We don't worry so much about amoebas and other creepy crawlies as we do about the potential presence of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and fluoride. The creepy crawlies can be easily filtered out but metals are extremely difficult to clean up.

Heavy metals are starting to show up at some wells in San Miguel as some of the aquifers run low and pumps start to suck up dirt or contaminants become more concentrated. An analysis last year of most of the wells in the San Miguel municipality showed those in the Jalpa area to be safe, though our specific well was not tested.

Then there's the rain, about 20 inches of it annually, coming down in a single whoosh between July and October. We've been surprised how many people have warned against using rainwater for common household purposes because of "contamination." But in fact rainwater will run through a gravel and sand filter on the way to the cistern. It should be at least as clean as anything from our local well, in addition to being silky soft. The system will have a bypass to divert the first roof-washing rain and it does not collect rain from porches and other walking surfaces used by pets or humans.

This week we should start applying the finishing coat of cement inside the cistern. It's doubtful there will be enough roof area built by the time the rain starts and the fields turn green and the dirt underfoot resembles black mashed potatoes.

For her part, Doña Felisa already has warned, in her usual polite but serious manner, that there may be some reductions in service when the rains come in order to conserve water and protect our well.

Got to admire that woman. I doubt she's ever read any articles or books, much less attended lectures about ecological sustainability or any such thing. Yet she's figured out, all by herself, that in our semi-desert region water is a precious resource. And by God she is going to use the power of her position to make sure we don't waste it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Gladys the Good Karma Mutt


Nine months or so ago everything connected with the sale of our existing home, and construction of the new one, seemed a tangle of dead-ends.

It was about that time that a black-and-brown mutt appeared in the parking lot of our condo complex. Her life was a much bigger mess than ours.

A medium-size female, probably seven or eight months old at the time, showed up at the start of the rainy season, toward the end of June. We adopted her, probably saving her life. Did she return the favor by somehow turning our fortunes around too? We are sure she did.

For those used to the rhythm of a Midwestern climate, the temperature and rain cycles in San Miguel can be oddly unnerving. In Chicago some form of moisture falls year-round, be it rain, snow, hail, sleet or any combination. In San Miguel you have eight months of sunshine and no rain whatsoever--from October to June--followed by a tropical turn in the weather that brings daily downpours, typically in the late afternoon.

Spring begins in February, roughly in the middle of the dry season. As if receiving a cue from outer space, the cacti start to flower, using only the water stored in their plump, spongy leaves. Jarrillas, delicately leaved bushes that grow rampant along the roads, also cover themselves with small yellow flowers. Within a few weeks the flowers turn into seed-carrying cotton puffs that waft all over the fields, where they will lie waiting a few months more for the rains they need in order to sprout. The old jingle about May flowers following immediately after April showers just doesn't happen here.

Late June, early July, the rains start and rapidly build up into daily monsoons. Steep streets become torrents; it's not unusual to find boulders and other heavy objects that were swept along overnight. The arroyos (a euphemism that literally means "creeks" or "brooks" but is used to describe storm sewer ditches running through San Miguel) fill up to capacity and turn into brown rivers angrily racing somewhere. The landscape turns from brown to kelly green almost overnight.

A few months before the rains had started last year we had decided to sell the condo where we lived and which we had purchased two years before, almost at the height of the San Miguel real estate frenzy. Though it is a beautiful place with stunning views (you can really see San Miguel's collection of churches from our terraces, without climbing three flights of stairs or straining your neck) buying this unit was a decision that didn't work at all for us.

We wanted to garden yet we didn't have land. We wanted solitude, yet the place is too conveniently close to the center of town. We like pets but they could not be happy within the confines of a condo development. What were we thinking?

Our exit strategy--which quickly went awry--was this. The sale of the condo would neatly coincide with the closing on the ranch land in Jalpa sometime in July. The money from the sale would immediately go toward construction. We would need a four-wheel-drive truck to get back and forth to the ranch through the muddy roads. We would hire the same architect we had worked with on our previous attempt to build a house. The architect would be ready, plans in hand, to proceed as soon as we got our hands on the money from the sale.

Pronto, presto.

We confidently launched a for-sale-by-owner campaign, using every piece of marketing artillery we could imagine, including a website, brochures, open houses and newspaper ads.

Not even a nibble. We had suspicions that San Miguel's real estate bubble may have burst, but didn't realize the market had very nearly flat-lined. We hired a realtor who at first didn't seem particularly optimistic either.

We closed on the land alright but ran into problems getting the seller, a bull-headed old rancher named Don Lucas, to deliver on his promise to provide an essential connection to a community well. He seemed eager and accommodating until he got his money and then forgot about our water. As he stalled, we contemplated suing but friends told us that civil litigation in Mexico most often goes nowhere and takes forever to get there.

The purchase of a used pickup also stalled. Over several weeks we must have looked at a dozen trucks, each with at least one, if not more, fatal flaws. Most notable were ridiculous prices despite major mechanical problems, along with clearly fake odometer readings or plausible readings in the hundreds of thousands of miles. Buying a used vehicle in Mexico is not for the naive.

We then had a falling out with the previous architect, who turned up with what we felt were inflated budgets, unreasonable financing demands and amateurish designs. We fired the architect. That cost us a few thousand dollars for services already rendered.

Every facet of our plans to build a new house seemed jinxed.

Then the rains started. One day Stew and I noticed a medium size, sopping wet mutt staring at us through one of the kitchen windows. Around the neck she had the remains of a rope, the end of which was frayed, as if it had broken off or she had chewed through it to get away. Her ears were cocked back, apprehensive as her eyes. Her tail was not the upright, tightly curled-up model you expect on a pedigreed mutt; it drooped and twisted clumsily. She limped when she finally walked away, and we noticed a sore on her right rear leg. She was sad.

As if reading my mind, Stew promptly warned me not to even think about taking in another dog. We had adopted a stray puppy a year before that had turned into a lovable, 50-pound galoot, that seemed stuck in the canine equivalent of a toddler's "terrible two's."

So I did the next best thing, short of inviting her in. With some plastic bins, food dishes and blankets I built the visitor a waterproof shelter on the side of the condo, where she could hide during the heavy rains. She kept hanging around nervously, and wouldn't let anyone touch her.

I casually mentioned to Stew that helping this poor animal could be good karma for us. You do something good, and good comes back to you in some form.

We should try to catch her, I suggested, have her spayed and then take her to the animal shelter for adoption. The last part of the plan quickly got shot down when we were told the shelter didn't have any room and the dog would have to go on a waiting list potentially several weeks long.

By now, the stray had taken to playing with Lucy at a nearby field and cautiously approaching Stew. She then took a ballet-like leap: One afternoon Stew was sitting on a rock with Lucy and the stray dog landed on his arms and wouldn't leave. Of course Stew had brought an extra leash, just in case.

We named her Gladys and she stayed.

The vet who did the spaying said that judging by the extent of her injuries, Gladys either had been hit by a car or mistreated by her previous owners. Indeed her rear legs are not quite in line, and the tail is permanently crooked and pointing down. Even at her most delirious, Gladys can only wag her tail a couple of inches each way; she frequently pees on herself when she squats, unable to get that gimpy appendage out of the way. Though she can keep up with Lucy and her running sprees, Gladys sometimes limps for no apparent reason.

A far more complicated problem is that she is afraid of strangers and will growl at anyone she doesn't recognize or trust. She finds women wielding stick-like objects--such as our maid carrying a broom--particularly alarming. We worked with a dog trainer and she is gradually mellowing. But clearly Gladys hasn't forgotten whatever happened to her before she met us.

The upside is that she is completely tame and loving with us and Lucy. She is equally affectionate with a friend who runs a kennel and took care of her after the spaying. There are a few others she trusts. If such calculus is possible by a dog, we think Gladys knows her friends and counts her blessings.

So do we. Within a few weeks after we took Gladys in, our realtor found a buyer, no small feat in such a bad market. The sales agreement allows us to stay here for six months after closing. The realtor also sold us a Nissan Frontier pick-up with four-wheel drive, precisely the car we wanted. Don Lucas, the grumpy old rancher, one day showed up with a backhoe and began the trench that would bring the water pipe to our land. And more importantly, we found a most simpatico and capable architect who is now building our house.

It would take a couple more months before we actually broke ground. But Gladys' arrival marked a dramatic turnaround for so many things that had seemed hopelessly stuck.

Cynics and skeptics will tell you there can't be any connection between the arrival of a mutt in the rain and a sudden turn in one's fortunes.

But in our case Stew and I believe Gladys is indeed responsible. It's karma. We know it.