The Water Lady will see you now

Looking like a piece that had broken off the International Space Station, a decrepit well-digging rig landed about a kilometer away from our ranch a month ago, launching yet another episode of the tragicomic novela about our community’s water supply.

Who’s sinking the new well, huh? And does he/she have a permit from the local or state water authority? The People want to know.

Central yet beside the point. 

Will this rickety new well—in addition to a monster well sunk not far away by the former mayor of San Miguel for the benefit of his new vineyard and a rumored new housing subdivision—threaten to deplete the aquifer, three hundred thirty meters below us, that provides our water?

None of these questions rise to the level of rocket science. They could be settled or arbitrated by a government authority. It could determine fees, finance maintenance and generally manage operations for the benefit of all.

Dream on. We’re in rural Mexico, where many  communities have their own water committee. Ours is  usually led by woman Stew and I have come to call the Water Lady.

It’s not an easy job. One Water Lady was supposedly fired for stealing the water money. In her defense, the rumor went on, her husband was a miserable drunk who stole the family’s food money and left her no alternative but to dip into the water fund.

Indeed, “system” is too strong a word to describe our water distribution arrangement which more closely resembles a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Atop a hill, there’s an ancient masonry holding tank that is fed by a pipe from a large electric pump located downhill by the wellhead, about a kilometer away.

Gravity then feeds the water in the holding tank to residents through a haphazard maze of galvanized pipes and rubber hoses with cutoff valves here and there.

At our ranch we have a one hundred and thirty-five thousand liter rainwater collection tank that is brimming by the end of the rainy season. It is supplemented, on Saturdays and Sundays, when water arrives via a one and a half inch rubber pipe, for about four or five hours each day.

If there’s no water for a couple of weeks, Félix and I, or some other neighbors must track down the Water Lady du jour to find out what happened.

Uncertain as it may sound, this arrangement has kept us in potable water, which we run through a series of filters before using it. We’ve only had to summon a water truck once, to deliver ten thousand liters for about fifty dollars.

The water fee is one hundred pesos a month, or about six dollars. We pay six months in advance to slyly buy influence with the Water Lady and her committee, which are always short of money because many of the Mexican customers don’t pay at all.

I suspect that perennial money shortages have led the water committee to sell more and more hookups, called tomas, to Americans and others building new homes. New tomas go for a princely thousand dollars or more. But the system that was designed to serve thirty households now has twice as many customers.

Yet selling more tomas to cover operating and capital expenses is unsustainable in the long term and puts greater stress on the rickety and overburdened system.

An American who studied the system—and has a personal stake in a reliable water supply because he is trying to sell his ranch—met with engineers of SAPASMA, the local agency theoretically in charge of regulating the water supply in the entire municipality including the rural areas. He was told that the stone reservoir and the cobweb of hoses and pipes are in such disrepair that an estimated two million liters of water are lost yearly.

Logically, the town urgently needs a 1950s-style metal water tank standing on four legs to pressurize the flow and reduce leaks.

Dream on again. Who’s going to pay for it? Not SAPASMA, unless the neighbors agree to install water meters and pay for consumption.

Many, if not most, of our neighbors are very poor and live life a day at a time. In addition, mutual trust, community cooperation and civic involvement are not a strong traits of rural Mexicans who one cynic said would have a hard time getting together to watch a fire.

Here’s Félix’ explanation of why residents in his community of Sosnavar, about a mile from here, opposed water meters. When the water is turned on, he explained, air blows through the pipes first before the water actually reaches the customers. The air makes the meters spin even though there’s no water for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of service.

It’s not fair. Folks would be charged for water and air. Sigh.

Just as things were getting boring, an American woman who’s a bit mercurial and a bit peculiar, and who also wants to sell her ranch, took matters into her own hands by attempting to organize the Mexican residents against the evil person who is sinking the new well.

In a series of increasingly shrill and downright nutty e-mails, she accused the American owners who at one point she called “Aryans”, of disrespecting and misunderstanding the Mexican campesinos.

For a minute it looked as if the dispute over water was about to boil over into a class warfare, led by an angry American who can’t speak a lick of Spanish.

On Monday, she drove a group of neighbors to the state water commission office in the city of Celaya, about ninety minutes away, to demand it slap a cease-and-desist order on the new well. They were told to go back to San Miguel and take up the issue with SAPASMA.

Though I somewhat respect the American woman’s initiative, barking at the offending drilling rig is not going to solve anything. It could be dismantled tomorrow morning and our barely functional water system wouldn’t function any more reliably.

After the revolutionary fervor dies down, perhaps the American who spoke with SAPASMA and I could bring one of their engineers to talk with the residents and the Water Lady in charge.

A Water Summit,  if you will.

Meanwhile, the well-digger’s distant and rhythmic thumping will go on for at least another month.

Actually we’ve found that once you get used to it, it becomes a sort of white noise that can help you fall asleep or at least forget the endless squabble over water.


8 thoughts on “The Water Lady will see you now

  1. Gringos who move to Mexico and then try to get the locals to do things “sensibly” are an endless source of amusement for me.I pay half what you pay per month for an endless water supply. It comes in unmetered both at the front of my Hacienda and at the back too, yes, two sources. I hear our water comes from underground springs. Wherever, I don't care. I'm just glad it does. It's nice, clear water too.


  2. I lived in this house for about 6 years before I ever received a bill from SAPASMA! I did not even know I was supposed to receive a bill from Sapasma and never had a meter……But, then I got a bill of about $150USD – equivalent in pesos. I went to them and explained the situation and they dropped it to $40USD……My bill for two houses is now about $6USD per month. There is a giant cistern under the gardens which pumps up to the tinacos. Never have had a water problem in all these years, thankfully. Your situation is very interesting, to put it mildly.


  3. Actually our situation is not peculiar at all. It's common throughout the campo outside San Miguel where SAPASMA comes in only when asked, usually in emergencies. If you don't have a water filter, at least a UV filter, you might want to ask R&F what they had at their former house. SAPASMA water is technically not drinkable and the only treatment it receives is massive amounts of cholrine added somewhere along the line.


  4. Felipe: You sort of have a point. Yes, gringos butting into Mexicans' lives, even through charitable organizations, can be amusing to watch and if anything, generate resentment among the natives.But here in San Miguel Americans also have the very un-Mexican habit of giving hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly for all sorts of community projects from feeding the homeless, sending high schoolers to college, medical care for children and all sorts of things. You need to qualify your bilious contempt for everything gringo-related. Mexicans are notoriously unfamiliar with philanthropy or opening up their wallets for anything, except for sanctimoniously giving two-peso coins to old ladies begging on the streets.As far as the water committee, hey, I pay for my water, live here, speak Spanish and even know quite a few people in town. We even gave a big picture of Lady Guadalupe for the local church. So I have every right to attend meetings, raise my hand and toss my two cents into the basket. At times it seems as if you live in a box. You seem to bad-mouth gringos and don't want anything to do with them in Pátzcuaro. But on the other hand, other than through your wife and occasionally her relatives, or through the viewfinder of your camera, it can't be said that you have much contact with Mexicans either. How about “adopting” some Mexican kid and trying to teach them English or how to use a computer? And beware of “clear water” of the free variety. It's often not drinkable…and an in-line UV filter would not be a bad idea. To your physical and mental health.alfredo


  5. Oh, my, Al, I do not have “bilious contempt” for everything Gringo-related at all. I do chuckle at the sort of Gringos who land in San Miguel and think they've actually moved to Mexico. As for the gadzillions of pesos they toss into do-gooding, it does have positive effects, I am sure. There are other elements to the equation, however. I don't feel like getting into that here, however. Let them toss their largesse. When they finish feeding and educating all the poor Mexicans, I recommend they move south to assist the Guatemalans, and then farther south. Lots of poor people to prop up.As for Gringos in Patz, I have two problems with them. One, they're 95 percent leftists, and not relatively sensible leftists like you, old bean. The other is that they keep on coming, and if they continue they'll turn Pátzcuaro into another San Miguel. I'm agin´ it.True, I don't have much contact with Mexicans either. I am a raging introvert, another issue altogether. And I don't need to adopt any Mexican kid. I can just pick one out of the extended Mexican brood I am a part of. Well, if I wish to be a do-gooder, and I do not.As for water, I don't drink tap water, of course. We buy bottled, as everyone below the border should for ingesting purposes.


  6. Mulling this more, it occurs to me that one big reason I object to this “philanthropy” Gringos engage in down here is that it has the odor of paternalism and/or colonialism. I imagine many Brits, to cite one example, thought their doings in India were inspired by idealism, helping the downtrodden, poor, ignorant Indians raise their standards of living and methods of governing. The British government knew it was all about money, but I suspect lots of British citizens actually thought they were doing good, and they did do lots of good, but did the Indians really like it? In the long run, no. I favor letting nations and cultures mind their own business except in emergencies like earthquakes and tsunamis.This paternalism that is so widespread, say you, in San Miguel is spreading here to Pátzcuaro. I say it's a mixed bag, and that Gringos who want to live in Mexico — nothing wrong with that — should move here, live their lives, and not consider themselves rescuers of the locals.


  7. Ouch. I don't know what is in the mind of the Americans here who support various charities, but I doubt that in general it is motivated by any colonial or paternalistic intentions. To compare it to British Raj in India really doesn't make sense to


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