Lessons in Fresh Water and Baja River Sand

Stuff we consume has to come from somewhere, right?  Whether its drinking water or construction aggregate, unless you produce it yourself, someone somewhere else has to get it for you.  And, unfortunately, while getting this stuff for you, sometimes other folks don’t carry front and center your best interests or the best interests of the environment.

The following are a couple of examples of things that should be obvious but are, for good reason, largely hidden from view.  We came upon them as we slowly cycled our way south through the coastal communities of southern California, inland through the mountains southeast of San Diego, and then south again from the quiet border town of Tecate toward Ensenada over the mountains and via the beautiful Guadelupe Valley.

Fresh Water

One of the focuses of this trip is to know and appreciate where our drinking water comes from as we make our way from one region to the next.  In rough order, beginning in the Northeast USA, we drank from surface sources like Lake Champlain, man-made impounding reservoirs, deep untreated wells, and other large bodies of water like Skaneateles Lake, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.  In the Midwest, USA, we drank from surface sources like the Kansas and Missouri rivers and man-made impounding reservoirs fed by smaller rivers and streams.  In California, the sources we drank from varied from surface sources like the Sacramento River Delta and reservoirs and wells to non-renewable underground aquifers and, of course, the Colorado River.

Almost without exception, all of the above regions are experiencing multiple threats to the source or sources of their fresh water.  Contamination from agricultural runoff and industrial and pharmaceutical pollution, source overuse and/or inadequate replenishment of underground aquifers, lack of adequate conservation measures, reduced annual precipitation resulting from climate change and losses resulting from antiquated municipal systems combine to illustrate the tenuous nature of our drinking water.

Of course, one way or another, all of this boils down to a global shortage of fresh water.  Less than one percent of all of the water on Earth is available to us in the form of fresh liquid water.  That’s not a lot of water, particularly when one factors in a global population of almost seven billion people and all of the agriculture and industry that uses the majority of it.

A new analysis, performed by consulting firm Tetra Tech for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), examined the effects of global warming on water supply and demand in the contiguous United States. The study found that more than 1,100 counties — one-third of all counties in the lower 48 — will face higher risks of water shortages by mid-century as the result of global warming. More than 400 of these counties will face extremely high risks of water shortages.

California’s Shortfall of Water

It should come as no surprise that southern California is facing a massive shortfall of drinking water.   It’s the most populace state in the union and more and more people move to this lovely state everyday from places near and far.  If current settlement patterns continue, forty times more people than the area can support will be living in the greater Los Angeles region by mid century.

Schemes to fix California’s water problem abound, from mining a non-renewable aquifer under the Mojave Desert to entering into an agreement along with Las Vegas, Phoenix and others for water from a proposed multimillion dollar desalination plant to be located south of Tijuana, Mexico.  But if places like Las Vegas in the United States or Cabo San Lucas here in Baja have shown us anything, it’s that most people will stop at nothing to keep from facing reality.  Southern California is essentially a desert.

That this kind of planning and development response is wholly unsustainable and should be drastically scaled, apparently, holds no sway in the minds of city planners or the public at large.  When we bump up against resource limits why don’t we stop to reassess?  Instead we plow forward making increasingly bad decisions, most of which only increase the costs borne by taxpayers and to the environment.

Ensenada :: Another Example

While saying in Ensenada, Baja, Mexico, for instance, the tap water we filtered and drank was supplied by an underground aquifer and is very salty, the result of sea water intrusion into the aquifer because of over-pumping and vastly exceeding the aquifer’s replenishment rate.

So what’s the plan in Ensenada?  Instead of taking drastic measures to increase conservation and reduce the population (a logical response to having exceeded the carrying capacity of the freshwater source) the municipality has entered into agreement with a Spanish multinational water company to construct a desalination plant.  But get this!  The plant will only provide fresh water to about 100,000 residents.  What’s the population in Ensenada that currently relies upon the failing aquifer?  Almost 300,000.  There appears to be no plan in place for what to do for the remaining two thirds of the citizenry that will be cutoff from the new water source.

This story is playing out in many other places around the globe, places where citizens have the same blind faith that all will work out in the end.



I try to keep abreast of local news as we ride through various communities.  One thing in California that caught my eye was a story about a US$27M “beach replenishment” project funded by the by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), supervised by the California Coastal Commission and watch-dogged by the San Diego chapter of the non-profit Surfrider organization all for the benefit of southern California beachgoers.  The article mentioned something vague about “offshore sources of sand”.  I found myself wondering exactly where the offshore sources were located.  After all, $27M worth of sand is a lot of sand. So I was thinking about sand when we rolled across the Mexico/USA border.

Realities of Sand Mining in Baja

A mined riverbed in Baja, Mexico.

Three days after crossing the border, thanks to the generosity of a local family, we were able to overnight in a small community located south of Tecate on Federal Highway 3.  While preparing for our departure the next morning, we learned from one of our hosts that the normally quiet town was currently gripped by a particularly heinous kind of fear.  He described how he and others in town were in a struggle against a mining conglomerate who is mining sand illegally from the mostly dry (thanks to the worst drought in 70 years) river beds that crisscross their community.  Apparently taking small amounts of sand from river beds in Baja is allowed by law (something like 1m deep and no more then the existing width of the channel) but the antagonist in question is taking far more, essentially dredging massive chasms out of what, until recently, were modest natural river beds.

The man went on to say that although his town had initially united around the cause of holding this group to the law, fierce intimidation tactics perpetrated by the company that have included firing upon peoples’ homes with bullets has resulted in most folks backing down.  When he visited the government offices to ask that something be done to stop the destruction, they “…just laughed in [his] face.”  The look in his eyes resonated with us since just the day before, while wandering in the town’s park, we’d come across several posters describing a meeting of townspeople to discuss a local concern.  At the time our slowly improving Spanish hadn’t permitted us to fully comprehend the meaning behind the poster but suddenly we understood.

As we pedaled away, feeling saddened by the events just described to us, I found that there was something else nagging at my mind.  Before I could resolve it, we ended up meeting the riverbed destruction head-on farther down the road in the town of Francisco Zarco.

Mined Riverbed in Baja, California

Cross-border Trade of Sand

When we next had an internet connection I did a little digging and what I found allowed everything to fall into place.  An excerpt from the Spring, 2005 issue of the San Diego International Law Journal told me all I need to know.  For the last few days we’d been met almost constantly by heavy tandem tractor trailer trucks traveling in the opposite direction, their jake brakes screaming on the steep northbound descents.  As they were grinding up the grades that I was flying down it hadn’t registered in my head what they were likely carrying nor where they were probably headed.  But now it all made sense.  It turns out that we had stumbled upon the insidious cross-border trade in sand.

Sand mined from riverbeds in northern Baja, Mexico, both against the will of the local people and to the very real detriment of the local ecology/environment, regularly ends up in infrastructure and construction projects in none other than San Diego, California, USA.

And that might not be all.

Where, exactly, are California’s “offshore sources of sand” coming from?

Perhaps totally unrelated but simply too coincidental to leave out is what clicked in my head as I recalled images of trucks full of sand.  I thought back to the California beach replenishment story I’d read about.  Wouldn’t it be a classic tragedy if the sand being used to shore up California beaches was the product of this same destructive dynamic?  I just hope, for the sake of everyone involved, that its cheaper to dredge for sand off the California coast than it is to buy it from riverbed mining companies in Baja.


UPDATE July 2016 – Turns out the amateur sleuthing we engaged in back in 2011 was just the tip of iceberg. Worldwide, a shortage of sand is producing many of the affects we saw in Baja. A journalist based in L.A. named Vince Beiser has produced a series of stories that highlight this ongoing global tragedy. The issues he raises are at once fascinating and chilling.

2 comments to Lessons in Fresh Water and Baja River Sand

  • Jeremy

    The scale of this has to be expensive both in fuel costs and labor. Given that this is operating in shades of deepening gray to outright illegal practice indicates that the cost of doing this the right way is even more expensive. From their actions I can surmise that the enviroment is the least of their concerns, likely never to have entered in their decision process.

    San Diego has plenty of sand to the east within the US that I would think would be easier to ship in by rail, just by the straight tonnage.

    “Most commonly, large trucks are used to transport the sand and gravel, and the rule of thumb is that it cannot economically be transported more than 30 miles. If we assume that transportation costs are 15 cents per ton per mile, a hauling distance of 20 miles will double the cost of the delivered aggregate.” (source: http://www.geo.msu.edu/geogmich/sand&gravel.html)

    This seems really odd that San Diego would pay to have so much sand transported for a non-construction use; essentially shipping sand from over 30 miles away for standing on and not for building or construcion projects that generate money. This is a lose-lose-lose no matter which way I look at it.

    • Kai


      I agree – if this really is going on (the source of the sand for beaches may be local for all I know) the economics would be bizarre. Of course, it’s already been shown that Baja sand has been imported for construction use; this doesn’t make sense financially either, but yet it occurred. For me, the coincidence was all just too much – I couldn’t help but connect the possible dots.

      I suppose that if I lived in CA I’d make it a point to contact Surfrider and secure some assurance that Baja river sand isn’t ending up on California beaches. And of course, regardless of that outcome, I’d also want to raise hell about the issue of Baja ‘blood’-sand ending up in SOCAL construction projects.

      Thanks for your comment! 🙂

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