Letter from Quintana Roo — Dirty Water

By Stephen Regenold

IT’S SPRING break season on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast, where the annual migration of international beachgoers looking for white sand and crystal-blue water puts millions of foreign feet on the ground. They stay in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, or one of the resorts along the Riviera Maya, a paradisiacal beachfront corridor adjacent to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef that 30 years ago was a remote and empty wilderness dotted with fishing villages, not a foreign tourist in sight.

Then, starting in the 1970’s, the Mexican government—via Fonatur, its national tourism development agency—built up Cancun, zoning in dozens of hotels and an international airport. Fonatur promoted fast development of the eastern Yucatan Peninsula and the Riviera Maya, and millions of vacationers—and their billions of dollars—poured into the region in what has been a textbook economic success story that Fonatur hopes to perpetuate for the next 20 years to come.

But large-scale change rarely happens without some resistance, and today a disjointed effort from multiple environmental organizations is working to keep reign on the growth. Indeed, the efforts of a dozen disconnected groups—from area NGOs and independent academic researchers, to international organizations as large as UNESCO—are together creating a critical mass to promote sustainable development on a macro scale in the eastern Yucatan, where a fragile ecosystem could suffer under the crush of Fonatur’s plans.

“For the first time, the Municipio de Solidaridad, the local government, is recognizing my group’s findings in its development plan,” said Sam Meacham, director of Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Quintana Roo, or CINDAQ, a nonprofit scientific and education organization based in Playa Del Carmen. Meacham, a cave diver and researcher originally from Austin, Texas, has explored the limestone aquifers of the Yucatán since 1995 to study the effects of development and pollution on the watershed.

CINDAQ’s latest focus—a cave system called Ox Bel Ha that extends more than nine kilometers under the town of Tulum—forms one of the longest subterranean rivers on the planet. Pollution entering a system like Ox Bel Ha, Meacham said, could flush to the ocean and damage the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and other ecosystems connected to the caves.

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a 1.3-million-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits just south of Tulum, a city on the verge of massive tourism development, with hotels, resorts, and a nearby international airport in the works. CINDAQ does not yet know if the Ox Bel Ha system connects to Sian Ka’an.

“The Tulum situation is a ticking time bomb,” said Dr. Patricia Beddows, a postdoctoral research fellow at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who has extensively studied the aquifers of the region. Her research, which uses dye-tracing methods and handheld meters in caves, shows water flow rates of 0.5 to 2.5 kilometers per day through the cavernous substrata under Tulum, a rate unheard of in most groundwater systems.

“With the rate of flow, there’s the potential that the city of Tulum inadvertently may one day be dumping waste into Sian Ka’an,” Beddows said.

Like CINDAQ and other area groups, Beddows provides her research to officials from the Municipio de Solidaridad, which is finalizing the Tulum Urban Development Plan, a blueprint that will dictate zoning and development of the area over the coming decade and beyond. Beddows’ hope is that Tulum and other area municipalities will employ civil infrastructure that promotes ecological wellbeing, including modern wastewater treatment plants. (Beddows, a scientist at heart, is rooting for depolymerization sewage plants and thermal-pyrolysis processing for garbage.)

Large organizations like The Nature Conservancy, which has an office in Merida, also are working to provide conservation solutions for the fast-growing Yucatan. One unique example, according to Diana Bermúdez, a program manager, is a conservation easement program that will link local property owners interested in selling their land with conservation-minded individuals. An easement on the land would ensure ecologically-significant properties are protected, not developed into condos or resorts.

In addition, The Nature Conservancy and Amigos de Sian Ka’an, a local NGO, this spring will start an aerial survey of the underground waterways of the Yucatan using a helicopter equipped with electro-magnetic sensors to verify water-flow paths. Researchers from the Technical University of Denmark will assist on data analyzation with the project.

Bermúdez said findings from projects like the helicopter survey have real potential to sway development plans and zoning regulations with area municipalities by providing government officials with scientific information that will help aid their decision making.

Beyond these examples, there are dozens of individuals working toward similar research and educational goals. Quintana Roo and the Rivera Maya are poised regardless for dramatic growth.

Says Meacham: “In Mexico, everything is possible, nothing is for certain.”

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Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.

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