AJIJIC, Mexico — For the first time anyone could remember, the Virgin came to the lake, the guest of honor at a thanksgiving celebration.
Carried on the shoulders of the faithful, the yard-high image of the Virgin of the Rosary, brought here by Spanish missionaries in 1531, led the procession through cobblestone streets to an outdoor Mass. Villagers, who credited her intercession for replenishing their lake, cheered as the statue was set on a makeshift altar composed of a small boat with draped fishing nets as a backdrop.
"How beautiful it is to see our lake filled to the flood walls," the priest exclaimed as the sun set over the mountains above Lake Chapala. "Let us give thanks for the rain the Lord has sent us, this water sent to fill our lake."
After decades of shrinking, Mexico's largest lake rose nearly three feet this year. It's still barely one-third of the size that it was as recently as 20 years ago, when Josefina Hernandez bought handfuls of its famous white fish for a peso, then worth 8 cents. Still, three feet is enough to rekindle hope in this fishing village turned resort. "We are so thrilled to see our lake this high," said resident Josefina Villegas. "We just hope it can continue."
Whether the lake continues to rise depends less on the Virgin and another year of record rains than on politics, said meteorologist Enrique Flores, director of a University of Guadalajara research institute that has studied Lake Chapala for over a decade. "What really filled the lake was political will," he said.
In an election year, and at a time when Mexico's environmental record is a major issue in discussions of a proposed North American free-trade agreement, a shrinking Lake Chapala was embarrassing evidence of ecological irresponsibility, according to Flores. Mexico could hardly convince environmentalists that it is taking a firm stand to protect nature when foreign tourists clearly saw that the lake D. H. Lawrence once described as "like a sea," was actually drying up.
Flores said that the sluice gates of seven major dams along the Lerma River--the source of 80% of Lake Chapala's water--were opened this year to fill the lake. Water was supposed to have been released last year but wasn't, leading him to believe that it required a high government order to force local officials to cooperate. The dams were built to generate electricity and supply water for irrigation along the Lerma's 309-mile route through Mexico's densely populated industrial heartland.
The lake is only one contender for the river's water: Mexico's two largest cities and hosts of farmers and factories all make claims--modern needs and traditional lifestyles fighting for the same resource.
As a result, the Lerma now provides only one-sixth as much water to Lake Chapala as it did a decade ago. And that water is so badly polluted that the Lerma is considered second only to Mexico City on a list of national ecological disasters.
A trip down the Lerma is a tour of Mexico's challenges as it tries to modernize without further damaging its environment.
It's a tour past towns, factories and refineries that draw water from the river and return wastes. Farmers along the way combine the most wasteful and polluting of old and new agricultural techniques. They irrigate fields with open ditches that allow a third of the water to evaporate; fertilizer and pesticides run off to drip back into the river. A visitor also finds evidence of a $52-million government plan to halve pollution in the Lerma and to increase the flow of water into Lake Chapala by 10%. But two years after the project was announced, actual results are scant.
The first attack on the Lerma comes before the river even gets started at the town of Almoloya del Rio, on the outskirts of Toluca. Fresh springs at the headwaters of the Lerma used to flow so abundantly that they also supported 14 mile-long Lerma Lake. Francisco Gutierrez, 63, fished and boated there when he was a boy. "There were birds and frogs, and the water was crystal-clear," he recalled, leaning on a scythe he uses to harvest oats from what was once the lake bed.
But in 1950, workers building an aqueduct to nearby Mexico City misplaced some dynamite, and the resulting explosion virtually destroyed the springs, disrupting the water supply all along the river.
"This is all that is left," Gutierrez said, waving a calloused hand at a dirty trickle of water in an open irrigation canal. The canal flows from what remains of the headwaters, a stream of dark water strewn with trash and choked with water lilies.
Fishermen carrying nets cross footbridges over the Lerma on their way to favorite spots in nearby marshes. Do they ever fish in the river? They look at the water, turn up their noses and laugh.
But this is just the beginning.