Saving Lake Chapala

Boats on Mexico`s Lake Chapala
Lake Chapala, Mexico

Lake Chapala, located south of Guadalajara, is the largest natural lake in Mexico and supplies drinking water to most of Guadalajara’s five million inhabitants. The lake is a national treasure and home to thousands of plant and animal species, including the migratory white pelican from central Canada.

But the lake is in bad shape. It is polluted with industrial, agricultural, and domestic wastewater, and is feeding out-dated and inefficient irrigation systems for agriculture. Houses, golf courses, and farms have been built on the exposed lake bed.

Although Lake Chapala’s pollution problems predate the North American Free Trade Agreement, Raquel holds out hope that the environmental side agreement to NAFTA, creating the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), can help ensure that the U.S., Canada, and Mexico enforce their environmental laws and protect Lake Chapala.

E-LAW U.S. has helped Raquel draft petitions to the CEC objecting to the Mexican government’s failure to enforce environmental laws to protect the lake. Citizens and NGOs have filed a total of 42 petitions to the CEC. Raquel’s organization, Instituto de Derecho Ambiental (IDEA -- the Institute for Environmental Law), has submitted three of those petitions. IDEA is leading efforts to challenge the failings of NAFTA and give citizens a voice in policies impacted by trade.

Arcediano Community Faces Threats

Raquel Gutierrez at Lake Tahoe, California, USA

E-LAW advocate Raquel Gutierrez Najera founded the Instituto de Derecho Ambiental (IDEA -- Environmental Law Institute) in 1997 to help Mexican communities exercise their democratic rights and protect the environment through law. Raquel is an environmental law professor at the University of Guadalajara. She won Mexico`s Ecological Merit Award in 2001.

Raquel traveled to Lake Tahoe in January to work with E-LAW U.S. board member Glenn Miller, Director of the Graduate Program in Environmental Sciences and Health at the University of Nevada in Reno. Glenn helped Raquel learn about citizen and NGO efforts to protect Lake Tahoe.

The proposed Arcediano Dam poses a new threat to the Lake Chapala basin. The dam project, proposed for downstream from Lake Chapala, on the Santiago River, aims to create a large reservoir that the Mexican government says would help meet the region`s growing demand for water. IDEA explains that this water is highly polluted and not useable as drinking water without making significant changes to water use in the area.

E-LAW U.S. Staff Scientist Meche Lu recently traveled to the region to visit the proposed dam site and continue her work with IDEA evaluating the project`s environmental impact assessment (EIA). IDEA filed a petition to stop the project for not complying with EIA law. On January 26, 2004, a district administrative law judge suspended plans for building the dam.

IDEA has been representing many people who would be impacted by the dam. Most of the legal documents have been signed by Senora Lara, who lives with her sister and 80-year-old mother in the area that would be flooded. Most other residents have accepted a small amount of money from the government and left their homes.

Immediately after the judge suspended construction of the dam, Senora Lara began receiving threats. Access to the community of Arcediano has been cut off and Senora Lara, the sole remaining resident, is cut off and isolated.

Raquel continues to fight for the rights of Senora Lara and the Guadalajara community that would be affected by the dam. It is likely that the decision by the administrative judge will be appealed. IDEA will be there to fight the appeal.

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Summary: 

Mexico`s largest freshwater lake is dying. Lake Chapala holds only 20% of the water it held five years ago, and what remains is contaminated by industrial pollution, domestic waste, and agricultural run-off. E-LAW advocate Raquel Gutierrez Najera is worki