Where Did Our Lagoon Go?

Now you see it, now you don’t. Well, over two years

An estuary is a partially enclosed coastal body of brackish water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea. It comes from the Latin word aestuarium, meaning “a tidal marsh or opening.”

The La Poza lagoon near Todos Santos is an example of that definition. The lagoon is fed by rain water that runs down from the mountains that sit on the spine of our peninsula. It rains up there way more than it rains down here near sea level, and the water that rushes, sometimes trickles, down the mountain side is most of what we have for fresh water. All we have is that trickle down, what we desalinate, and what we pump out of the ground, which again, is trickle down water that has soaked into the land.

Our pretty lagoon that we can usually count on to make it through droughts has been under unusual stress lately, resulting in the water receding, causing our lagoon to get smaller by the day. It is now a mere shadow of it’s former self.

 Estuaries form a transition zone between river environments and ocean environments. They are subject both to ocean influences—such as tides, waves, and the influx of saline water—and to river influences—such as flows of fresh water and sediment. The inflows of both sea water and fresh water provide high levels of nutrients both in the water and in sediment, making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world.

The La Poza lagoon near Todos Santos is an important ecosystem in Baja California Sur. 110 bird species have been recorded lounging out at La Poza by the Carmona/ProNatura study between 2014-15. this is 25% of all observable species in our state. Many of these species, including the critically endangered Belding’s yellowthroat, Xantus’s hummingbird and the gray thrasher, are endemic only to this area.   There are only about 1500 to 4,000 Belding’s yellowthroat left on the planet due to habitat loss:, and they live only in Baja California Sur. In addition, the Audubon Society has placed 64 bird species of the Pacific Flyway on its priority conservation list, and 20% of these species are regular visitors to the La Poza lagoon. 

Besides the critter population, this estuary is important as flood protection by holding excess water that comes over the berm from the ocean, and holding fresh water rushing down from the mountains. La Poza provides flood protection by holding excess runoff after a storm, then releasing it slowly. The lagoon’s soil acts as a sponge, and holds much more water than most other soil types. The importance of this service will only continue to grow with the increase in global warming and the resulting increase in the number of hurricanes.

Another service the estuary blesses us with is the protection of the area surrounding it. The lagoon helps protect shoreline soil from the erosive forces of ocean waves. Lagoon plants act as a buffer by dissipating the water’s energy and providing stability by binding the soils with their extensive root systems.

Another service of this versatile lagoon is it transforms nutrients and purifies water. Sediments, nutrients, and toxic chemicals enter the lagoon from both urban and agricultural runoff. A key issue of concern to Todos Santos residents is fertilizers and pesticides that have been applied to the land by local farms. This problem is compounded by the pollutants picked up in the commercial and residential areas when the water from the Sierras travels through the rivers and canals of the town. The lagoon is one of the key culmination points of the Todos Santos watershed, and it removes these pollutants by trapping the sediments and pollutants and holding them in the soil. The slow velocity of water in the lagoon allows the sediments to settle to the bottom where plants hold the accumulated sediments in place. The lagoon traps and buries these chemicals and pollutants.

And let’s not forget the small animals- especially our beloved  insects - which are essential links at the lowest levels of the food chain that attracts the birds and other wildlife. Insects are God’s creatures, too, and they deserve a nice lagoon to live in.

So, now. Do you believe us that La Poza lagoon is more than just a pretty recreational playground for us? Then let’s get on with the realities. Just look at the pictures here and you will see the vast difference in the health of the water in the two years since fresh water has been cut off almost entirely.

We traced the creek that used to feed it. Judging from the small ditch that it carved out, it’s never been a gully washer, but a slow, steady contribution, enough to keep the balance between fresh and salt water, and enough to keep the lagoon bed full of water. It has always fluctuated, but this is as dry as anyone can remember it.

We are all aware of the diminished fresh water supply in Southern Baja and Todos Santos is no exception to that. Farming in Todos Santos has grown tremendously year over year in the last decade, so much, that the water table is going down. Many wells that were formerly generous with clear, fresh water are now giving us brackish water. This is because the fresh water table has gone so low salt water is sneaking in to the water table. Some people are angry at these farmers, feeling they’re hogging the water, and angrier over the fact that almost all of the produce raised in and around Todos Santos is exported to the United States. “It’s as if we’re exporting our water to the United States,” said one homeowner who has to buy his water off a truck when the city runs out.

The people living around the lagoon and directly affected by it each day are keen on finding out where their water went. These are tourist businesses that suffer, because their guests want to play on the lagoon. One bed and breakfast that fronts where the water used to be, has kayaks, stand up paddle boards and row boats now put away in storage because the lagoon is unusable.

We do know that the fresh water for the lagoon does trickle through land owned by the Moreno family, so of course that family is high on the list of suspects of who’s hogging the water. But they do have a permit from the federal water agency to take a percentage of the water that flows up from their wells, and along the surface of their land. This is the way Conagua divvies up water: Not so many gallons or liters, but a percentage of what’s available. If this family is letting the same percentage of water through as they always have, then there is way less water to be had than there used to be. Unlikely, say many of the Todos Santos residents, as they point to the green hills around us and the hurricanes that have dumped copious amounts of water on us, just as the lagoon has been receding.

Perhaps the dying estuary is not so important when seen through the eyes of town residents who don’t have clean water coming through their taps, but it does seem as though a comprehensive water plan allocating the scarce resource fairly is called for. The problem  is, what’s fair? That depends on who you talk to.